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Special Issue
WWD Green issue 10/30/2007

The denim market faces unique challenges in the drive for eco-conscious apparel.

This story first appeared in the October 30, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

As fashion continues to become more eco-conscious, denim jeans remains one of the most impractical categories to make truly environmentally friendly.

While organic cotton might make up the actual denim, the process itself — which uses excessive amounts of water, energy, dyes and chemicals — makes the phrase “organic jeans” a contradiction in terms. As a result, producers of denim lines that had once considered going organic are now rethinking that strategy, while others have chosen to focus on alternative ways to produce clothing and run their companies in a sustainable way.

“There is no such thing as an organic pair of jeans,” said Mel Matsui, founder of Seattle-based denim brand Christopher Blue.

“It’s not just about the fabric. It’s what happens after you wash it,” he said.

The vagaries of the term “organic jeans” are something that many people in all aspects of the industry are familiar with.

“There’s really no difference between conventional and organic cotton fiber,” said Robin Merlo, director of marketing communications at Cotton Incorporated in New York. “Fiber to fiber, they’re exactly the same. But from the manufacturing point of view, organic can refer not only to fiber, but the finished fabric, dye and detailed finishing, including the thread. The bottom line is that it varies in definition, depending on who’s giving the definition.”

Therein lies the dilemma for denim companies striving to create an organic jean.

“Denim is hard,” said Tierra Forte, owner of Del Forte, an organic jeans label based in Berkeley, Calif. “But just the act of choosing organic cotton, even if it costs more and is harder to find, has a positive effect.”

With her line now in its third season, Forte has tried to circumvent the usual obstacles. Ninety percent of the organic cotton she uses comes from farms in California and Texas, and she actively seeks out alternative processes.

“There’s a very limited amount of research and development being done to find more sustainable and less wasteful ways to do denim finishing,” she said. “We try to address the situation in the design phase, and are moving in the direction where the washes are lower impact and use less chemicals. The less processing you do to the denim, the better for the environment.”

Her jeans, which carry an average wholesale price of $88, are no more expensive than a nonorganic pair, because she doesn’t want to deter customers from trying them.

“Basically, the money that most companies spend on marketing and advertising, we spend on organic cotton,” she said.

According to the National Organic Program under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the actual processing of organically produced fibers such as cotton and flax is not covered under their guidelines, which means that goods that utilize organic fibers may only be labeled as a “made with” item. This leaves the whole issue of organic jeans-making open to all sorts of interpretation.

Andrea Bernholtz, president of premium denim line Rock & Republic in Culver City, Calif., agreed that a focus on eco-friendly jeans “is a bit of a red herring.

“It doesn’t look at the full picture of reducing each company’s carbon footprint,” she said. “It sometimes can be a bit of a ‘trophy’ green action that has a small impact on the environment when looking at the whole picture.”

In her opinion, many claims of ecologically friendly jeans are largely without substance. The higher costs of producing such a line would inevitably be passed on to the consumer in an already price-sensitive market, she said.

“That said, we are always looking at different manufacturing processes and new ecologically friendly techniques are always on our radar.”

As an example, the company is now recycling and reusing their off cuts, turning them into insulation for construction projects. Similarly, Christopher Blue is doing its part for the green campaign by launching for next October a line of shirts made from bamboo and organic cotton.

“We’re doing it because the stores are asking for it,” he said. “They want to get on the bandwagon, too.”

Most companies know what they’re up against. New York-based Gilded Age decided to revert to century-old denim production methods, using natural indigo dying instead of synthetic dyes. Principal designer and creative director Stefan Miljanic said he decided to use organic denim when the company was founded two and a half years ago because he wanted to capture the “authentic feel and look of the denim from bygone eras.”

The line is produced in Japan, where, Miljanic said, “so far we did not encounter major problems in getting it done in a sustainable way.”

Loomstate, also in New York, and a company known for using 100 percent organic cotton for its $135 to $200 jeans, is also investigating new vegetable dyes and organic washes in a bid to become more eco-friendly.

Los Angeles-based Freedom of Choice is launching a single jean made from organic cotton for holiday 2007. Designer and creative director Nathan Menashe said he has minimized harsh processes by using a darker wash.

“There are organic washes where there are no chemicals used. And if you want to keep it organic, you just bring down the color,” he said. The jean, which will retail for $148, is priced on a par with nonorganic jeans, largely because the dark color process is so simple.

“Organic jeans are the future, and that’s why I introduced it,” Menashe said. “I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of it, but I don’t think there will ever be a 100 percent organic process in making denim.”

Not that certain brands aren’t trying. New York-based Earnest Sewn is making its foray into green jeans by doing an exclusive collection for Barneys New York, to hit in November. The limited edition Greencaste by Earnest Sewn collection will comprise three styles each for men and women, and will retail for between $200 and $240.

“When we first started hearing a lot of talk about organic denim collections and organic denim labels marketing their brands as environmental, the first thing I thought was how contrarian their logic was,” said Scott Morrison, president and designer of Earnest Sewn. “Why label something organic when you proceed to wash the organic fabric with chemicals, polluting and wasting water, [and] bake and dry the jeans in machines that use massive amounts of electricity?”

He sourced denim that is almost 100 percent organic, which he uses for the pocketing as well. Conventional drying was eliminated, with jeans being air-dried instead. Then he set about creating new wash formulas that use natural surfactants instead of traditional detergents. He removed the use of chlorine bleach in the wet process and substituted peroxide and ozone, and uses all-natural starches instead of traditional resins to create the finishes.

“We literally had to re-create and reinvent all our previous manufacturing techniques,” he said.

Now that Morrison has the technique down, he wants to make sure consumers know the difference between the various levels of organic jeans out there. The real issue, he said, “was to bring a product to market at a manageable price, and then figure out a way to reach the consumer and get them to understand the difference in what they are buying.”


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