Photo courtesy of Cone Denim.

Over the past few years, there has been a major buzzword in the denim Industry: sustainability. But to truly understand the definition of sustainability, I needed to look it up. Sustainability is a complex concept. The most cited definition relates to sustainable development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations. It also means the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.

While attending a Kingpins Transformers show, the theme was about sustainability and transparency. Previously, the presentations involved brand representatives talking about sustainability from more of a marketing perspective. This time, though, it was farmers and growers talking about sustainability “from the plant to the pant.” That day I was transformed and was the start of a search to find a truly sustainable supply chain. Which led me to reveal some “blue truths” about the denim industry while raising some key questions: Is sustainability a trend like ripped or upcycled jeans? What does it mean to be truly transparent and sustainable?

Pete Seeger  Shutterstock / Sandra A. Dunlap

I am often reminded of a Pete Seeger quote from 1969 urging people to “think globally and act locally.” Which got me thinking back to the heyday of American textile and denim manufacturing in the South. There was a time when you could roll into a small town and all the people were employed by a local factory and they were making hundreds of thousands of pairs of jeans of each week — and the quality and workmanship was superior to what is produced today. And today, the amount of money spent to lure customers to produce outside a country rather than to invest in local production is disproportional.

Companies also speak of “speed to market” and price. But are we thinking about the human aspects of sustainability? Have we, in our effort to make things faster and cheaper, “thrown away the baby with the bathwater?” By producing locally, domestically, brands forego tariffs and duties while also economically supporting both urban and rural economies. We also constantly hear it’s too expensive to manufacture domestically, and that consumers won’t pay higher prices. The same was said about the organic food industry. While it’s more expensive, the food is of better quality and is now a driving force in the food industry at every level.

There are other issues at play, too. We often do not talk about the overdevelopment pushed by fashion companies — especially in the denim industry. There is a multitude of trade shows, and an over abusive amount of sales sample development — as well as a large carbon footprint created from all the shipping and airplanes and trucks — all to sell roughly 10 percent of product which is developed. These samples are usually discarded at the end of a season and end up in landfills. Comparatively, making green manufacturing invests instead can save money and benefits everyone.

There are only a handful of truly sustainable denim brands in the market, and many companies seem to use the word “sustainability” as some sort of marketing tool. Consumer studies have shown that they are willing to pay more money if they know that what they are buying is of higher quality and has been made in a sustainable fashion without environmental impact. And there are companies out there innovating and using technology to create end-to-end sustainable practices. One company, Officina+39, for example, developed Recycrom pigments, which were created from pulverized old jeans and offered in a range of eight colors including indigo and can be used for garment dyeing, printing and even paints.

Still, there are other challenges in the market. Which brings me to the most important issue: e-commerce. We have overlooked the huge carbon footprint that online sales, express shipping, and packaging (paper and poly plastic bags) has created — as well as the impact of e-commerce on retails sales, especially on smaller brick-and-mortar stores. We talk about plastic bottles as a national issue, and yet companies ship with non-reusable bags that can be not be recycled and end up in landfills. Only packaging with oxo-biodegradable additives can address this.

A view of the Public School x Eileen Fisher area at Making Space in Brooklyn.

A view of the Public School x Eileen Fisher area at Making Space in Brooklyn.  George Chinsee/WWD

There are brands who are using “cradle to cradle” certified fabrics with recycled plastic yarns, cotton and fibers such as Tencel, but yet among the hundreds of styles, maybe only offer a few that are sustainable. And at retail, most staff members are simply unaware of what entails sustainable products. There are exceptions, and brands such as Patagonia, Eileen Fisher and Everlane have well-educated and informative sales associates and brand managers. Still, there seems to be some industry-wide competition within the denim trade community to claim the crown of the “most sustainable,” but is it reaching the end-user, the consumer?

But I have hope. Smaller brands that are producing locally and taking up-cycling to the next level such as R13, B Sides Denim, Williamsburg Garment Company, Fitted Underground, First Standard and Life After Death Denim are making a difference. These are sustainable companies who are setting denim trends whole also creating a salable product. And at the mill level, the most exciting news is the opening of Vidalia Denim, which will be using E3 Sustainable cotton and creating jobs in a rural community in Louisiana, as well a helping to revitalize denim fabric manufacturing in the “cotton belt” in America.

The plant will be state of the art and fully sustainable. They have also formed an alliance Lubrizol, which is a new sustainable, finer and stronger stretch fiber than traditional spandex and using American grown natural indigo from Stoney Creek Colors, which is helping the small struggling farming industry. Look for its denim products in the market later this year.

There are also companies such as Jeanologia and Tonello, who have been leading the way in developing and improving garment finishing technology. And mills such as Cone Mills, Candiani, Orta, Artistic Milliners, Isko, Arvind, Royo and Kurabo to name a few that continue to be leaders in recycled fibers, reclaimed cotton, and dyeing methods, which are helping to clean up the denim weaving process while educating brands and buyers.

For my own company, Godmother NYC, we have formed a collaboration with Down to Earth Original to create a cooperative of local makers using sustainable materials and also to create a brand with profits going to NYC Grows and Harlem Grown — with the goal of breaking the cycle of generational poverty, one kid at a time. We will incorporate denim, art and skateboarding using naturally grown indigo dyes, recycled metal trims, and reclaimed materials which are made locally and sewn locally in New York City.

The bottom line is that sustainability must be the bottom line.

Christine Rucci is a principal at Godmother NYC Inc., which is a member of Made in NYC. Rucci has worked at Calvin Klein, A|X Armani, Donna Karan, Tommy Hilfiger (where she launched Tommy jeans), and Ralph Lauren, where she worked on denim development and designed the Double RL line, and learned, among other things, the importance of knowing the history of clothing. “Ralph taught me you have to look backward to be forward,” she said.

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