This feature is part of a larger package on sustainability. The rest of the series can be found here.
Denim derives many of its most prized qualities — the way it feels and fades, its durability — from how it's made. It's woven with an undyed horizontal yarn (the weft) made usually of cotton or cotton blend passing over and under at least two vertical indigo-dyed yarns (the warp), creating its classic diagonal twill and other characteristics, including strength.
Sounds simple, but it involves an intricate set of processes, many of them environmentally troublesome. Several brands are trying to work on improvements, with varying levels of commitment and success. Levi Strauss & Co. has been at the forefront, reducing water use (including encouraging wearers to wash their jeans less often) and developing more sustainable blends, most recently Wellthread, made with a hemp-cotton fabric from surf brand Outerknown. Consumers can also drop off old denim items at Levi's stores to be recycled by Cotton Incorporated’s Blue Jeans Go Green program for use in making insulation.
There are others also working, with the support of their vendors, to produce more sustainable denim. In fall 2019, Guess will launch its Eco collection, made at Italian mill Candiani with fewer chemicals and less water, according to a press release emailed to Retail Dive. Los Angeles-based Reformation has worked with ecology-minded Italian denim designer Adriano Goldschmied for decades, and, more recently, with Goldschmied protégé Jordan Nodarse, who now runs his own sustainable brand, Boyish Jeans. Wrangler recently debuted a limited collection using cotton from small U.S. farms in five states using healthy soil methods, with a goal to source 100% of its cotton this way by 2025. Even fast-fashion companies H&M and Zara-owner Inditex have upped their sustainability goals, including in some denim offers.
"The turning point is probably now, when the fight for climate is coming ... For me it is an amazing emotion to see millions of people in the streets all over the world asking for a change now," Goldschmied, a pioneer in sustainable denim, told Retail Dive in an email. "For sure it is very challenging not only in term of cost of production but also as the cost of communication and marketing are very high. However, the industry has to restructure itself and be ready to make happy the planet and consumers. There is no choice."
The problems and the solutions
Denim's quintessential main ingredient, cotton, especially when it's organic, is better in the long run for the environment because as a natural fiber it's biodegradable. This is unlike polyester and other man-made, carbon-intensive and polluting materials
Traditionally, it takes a lot of water to make denim, however, starting with growing cotton, then processing it at mills and beyond. Some 1,500 gallons are needed to cultivate the pound and a half of cotton for one pair of jeans, according to the Textile Institute's "Sustainability in Denim." More yet is used in dyeing, rinsing and finishing, and, throughout, chemicals like pesticides, bleaching agents, enzymes and dyes are introduced and can leach into nearby water supplies.
Aware of cotton's problems, Goldschmied in 1992 was the first to make denim by blending in Tencel lyocell fibers made from sustainably harvested tree pulp to cut water and energy use. More recently he and Nodarse devised a denim fabric for Reformation using Refibra, which uses 20% recycled cotton waste, made by Tencel manufacturer Lenzing.
"I feel that denim is ahead [in sustainable apparel production], and I am proud of that," Goldschmied said. "It is true that most of my activity is in the frontline where we work in changing and improving the processes. However to make our work successful we need to involve all the chain that goes from the idea and the concept to the final consumer and also in the post-consumer process. Communication, collaboration with operators at any level, correct marketing are the key to make the final consumer conscious."
Also key is the yarn, dyed so just the surface turns color, allowing for that particular fade. That generally involves huge vats of water with indigo plus other chemical agents. (The distinctive blue dye was originally derived from the indigo plant, but that's mostly been replaced by synthetics.) In addition to employing less toxic alternatives, Spanish mill Tejidos Royo worked with North Carolina-based Indigo Mill Designs and Gaston College Textile Technology Center for 10 years to develop a water-free dye system. Research institute Aitex has certified the process for using 100% less water in dyeing, 89% fewer chemicals, 65% less energy and producing zero water discharge. Wrangler last year was the first to sign up.
"It used to be that sustainability was 'ugly.' Now, technology is helping sustainability to be 'fashionable' ... you have a garment exactly the same as a normal indigo garment, but with zero water dye, no discharge, less time at the laundry and quicker to get the 'vintage' effects," Royo Sales Director Jose Rafael Royo Ballesteros told Retail Dive in an email. "Sustainability can be as good as contaminating technologies."
One of well-made denim's unique elements, its longevity, should also count, says Boyish's Nodarse. And Paul Dillinger, head of global product innovation at Levi Strauss & Co., believes that making clothes that last, and that the wearer values for years, may be more essential than trumpeting how ecologically correct a garment is. The company's customization opportunities also help customers create items they want to keep, he said.
"We don’t like to talk about it because it’s an unquantifiable sustainability attribute," Dillinger told Retail Dive in an interview. "When a button pops off and that becomes a reason to throw a shirt away, that’s a failure to create enough emotional resonance to warrant maintaining it. That conversation is light on science, but it relates to the designer’s intuitive sense — what fashion does well and what sustainability needs to consider. I promise you that a marketing campaign that admonishes the customer for not buying sustainably is doomed to fail."
Adding to the challenges is the current vogue for jeans that stretch and are pre-faded and -distressed, according to Tricia Carey, Lenzing director of global business development, denim. "Fabrications for skinny jeans need a synthetic fiber component to achieve stretch," she told Retail Dive in an email. "The synthetic fiber is not compostable or biodegradable. Traditional laundry methods on jeans with extensive wash treatments and destruction require more chemicals, water, and labor."
Those demands represent imperatives, though, experts say. "Softness and stretch make sustainability much more challenging, but there’s absolutely no point in arguing with the consumer on this one," Dillinger said. "A great deal of my work here has been focused on circular industrial ecology, and we’ve been wrestling with the extent of our capabilities to deliver. A jean with great stretch and recovery cannot be recycled. Through a partnership with chemical recyclers ... we’re getting closer to the day when a blended garment can go into a recycling system and the output will be useful."
Goldschmied insists that catering to fashion whims needn't interfere with producing ecologically sound denim. "There is no mission impossible, it is our job to find solutions to create products that are friendly and comfortable to consumers and at the same time that are reducing at the minimum level the impact that they have on the environment," he said. "I don't think that they are ready to pay more, I don't think that we have to ask this to consumers. It is our responsibility to design processes that are more efficient in this direction. Innovation and technology are giving us tremendous tools to make better products and better prices."
It's a sentiment echoed across the industry. The planet, not the consumer, should be driving these efforts, experts all said. And while shoppers these days are supposedly clamoring for sustainably produced goods, it's an open — and superfluous — question as to whether they act on that.
"There are competing narratives coming out of consumer insights data," Dillinger said. "There's a lot of data that says the consumer is willing to pay more and then we see there’s a pretty vast delta between what they say they’ll do and what they actually do. But if a mother needs to feed her children, it becomes her responsibility to buy the less sustainably made t-shirts because the difference could help her put food on the table. I don’t really know that it’s a productive discussion to consider the consumer too deeply. Whether or not the consumer cares is irrelevant — it’s a matter of having clean water and clean air, and those aren’t matters of preference."
The human factor
It's impossible to produce utterly unproblematic apparel, according to Kat Eves, a Los Angeles-based celebrity wardrobe stylist and fashion designer who promotes ethical practices in apparel production and marketing. But she believes consumers should be aware, and buy at least some ethical fashion to help the industry move forward. That means attention to how denim manufacture impacts not only the planet, but also the human beings working on the farms and factories involved.
"There is no such thing as a brand who has figured out a 100% clean supply chain, but the more we invest in brands who not only commit to ethical manufacturing but continually double down on their efforts, the greater a chance we have of pushing more brands to invest in these values, too," she told Retail Dive in an email. "When it comes to denim, though, there are many brands who tout their ethics across size ranges, which is great! Knowing what’s marketing and what’s true commitment to labor standards is another story, however."
Eves and Nodarse note that, while there's finally more attention on working conditions and wages at apparel factories (which has led to some, if few, improvements), workers in cotton fields and elsewhere are neglected. "You can never go completely sustainable. I look at progress, not perfection," Nodarse said. "I work with small farms that are not overusing water, not using chemicals, not using child labor, not using slave labor. A lot of [apparel brands] are auditing their companies in house and they’re only auditing their factories. People don't care enough."
And issues around ethical labor are not just overseas, Eves said. "Get rid of any notion that Made in USA means 'made ethically.' It doesn’t," she said. "Right now, there are huge numbers of sweatshops operating right here in my backyard of LA, but you will also find them in New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Georgia. These homegrown sweatshops are hot beds for human trafficking, atrocious wage crimes ... and if that wasn’t enough, many consumers don’t realize that the garment only needs a to be partially made in the USA to qualify for a 'Made in USA' label."
A variety of institutes and organizations offer certification for various aspects of sustainability in apparel.
Aitex is just one; others include SA 8000, Cradle to Cradle, Bluesign, EIM "environmental impact measuring" software from denim laundry Jeanologia, the Better Cotton Initiative, and WRAP. For consumers, Eves suggests looking for tags on denim indicating fair trade and organic sourcing, like GOTS-certified organic cotton, and B Corp certification.
"The efforts are all over the map," though, according to Lenzing's Carey. "It's not unified and this is what Andrew is trying to do with Kingpins."
"Kingpins" is a 15-year-old denim supply chain summit, and "Andrew" is Andrew Olah, the textile and marketing consultant who founded it. Kingpins first launched in New York City and has expanded to Hong Kong, Amsterdam and Mainland China. In February, Olah announced that, beginning in April, Kingpins is "requiring all exhibiting denim mills to meet or exceed standards in the areas of corporate social responsibility (CSR), environment and chemical usage."
Olah is leveraging Kingpins as a platform for change based on the notion "that industry trade shows are in a position to simultaneously help the denim industry be more responsible and support brands and retailers choose best-in-class suppliers by requiring exhibitors to comply to the highest industry standards," according to a press release.
"For example, in social compliance we have found that virtually none of our denim mills have an SA 8000 certification or a WRAP certification — which is disappointing," he said in a statement, adding that more such stipulations are to come.
An even more powerful accelerant may be transparency.
"Brands should be open and committed to continually improving their approach to responsibility," Eves said. "Transparency is not the whole answer, but it is the first major step for brands who are serious about doing things responsibly. If a brand can’t trace the source of the materials used down to the textile, that’s a red flag. If they can state what kinds of dyes they use, where it’s made, who makes their clothes, what audits are put into place to ensure that ethical labor standards are upheld, that’s a great sign."
- Circular Economy