Blue jeans are going greener. And as consumers’ demand for sustainable apparel speedily increases, new technologies have enabled cleaner manufacturing processes for the much-loved fabric, allowing eco-conscious brands and retailers to integrate denim into forthcoming collections at long last.

For example, sustainable men’s wear brand Outerknown today launched its first-ever denim collection, debuting in three styles: mid-rise, slim fit and full cut. The firm was founded in 2015 by 11-time World Surf League champion Kelly Slater and creative director and designer John Moore with the objective to “create a connection between style and sustainability.” For its denim, the company uses 100 percent organic cotton from European mills Candiani and Isko and is partnered with Vietnam-based Saitex, a Bluesign-certified factory. Its jeans line is part of Outerknown’s SEA program, which stands for Social Environmental Accountability, a double-entendre acronym that nods to the firm’s environmentalism and Slater’s professional surfing career.

Slater told WWD, “I have been a sponsored athlete most of my life, which means I was paid to wear clothes. When I realized the social and environmental impact of what I was promoting, I started asking questions and realized just how backward and secretive the clothing industry is. John Moore and I started looking at how you could do something that was sustainable from the start. It took us a year and gathering a team of really smart people to build a supply chain and a code of conduct that met the standards we were looking for.”

Slater said his career as a surfer “has been about pushing boundaries and trying new things. What I bring to Outerknown it is that instinct to constantly question how we can push things forward and update our goals and vision.”

“As a kid, I thought nothing about these things,” Slater explained. “As I got older, I became interested in health and what I put into my body, and how our choices affect the planet. It’s a natural extension when you think about clothing and how we grow conventional cotton, for example. It takes something like 1,000 gallons of water to grow a pound of cotton. Using organic cotton saves 90 percent of that water. I believe the things we make should be a reflection of how we view the world around us and what’s important.”

And Outerknown is primed for a market that is ready: By 2021, the global jeans market is poised to generate $130 billion in retail sales, according to data from Statista. And the global premium denim market is anticipated to experience compounded annual growth of 8.4 percent between 2017 through 2021, according to Technavio.

Photo courtesy of Outerknown.  Outerknown

Mark Walker, chief executive officer of Outerknown, told WWD, “We at Outerknown are ready. It took us time to find the right sourcing pipeline to make a jean that met our sustainability standards ‘For People and Planet.’ After lots of conversations, meetings and exploring, we found a way to make jeans that we are proud to put the Outerknown name on. Secondly, the customers are ready and asking for it. People are asking more from brands in terms of being accountable for what their products are made from and where and how they’re produced. There is an audience that wants sustainability in their jeans. It’s time.”

Walker said Saitex helped the company realize that creating a sustainable denim collection was actually possible. Touted as a “clean” solar-powered denim factory, Saitex recycles 98 percent of the water used in denim development and transforms the remaining 2 percent of sludge into building bricks, in addition to harvesting rain water and air drying 85 percent of its jeans to save energy.

“Saitex offers innovative processes that help with water and energy conservation and chemical management that turns what is normally one of the dirtiest categories to produce into a sustainable practice,” Walker said.

The factory air-dries each pair of SEA jeans through a rail system in their workshop, according to the firm. Shelly Gottschamer, head of sustainability and supply chain at Outerknown, added, “[Air-drying] may seem like a small factor in the grand scheme of the manufacturing process, but the energy savings are huge in comparison to using a conventional drier.”

Its ongoing use of sustainable materials has positioned the brand for its venture into denim, regularly integrating preferred fibers, recycled, regenerated and organic products in more than 90 percent of its merchandise.

“Aside from the denim, we work with organic cotton throughout the styles offered in our various categories and we also incorporate hemp, which is one of the strongest natural fibers in the world — it’s light, flexible and comfortable,” Moore said. “We’re proud to work with great partners who are aligned with us on this journey ‘For People and Planet,’ including Oceanworks and Econyl that produce buttons from recycled ocean plastics, and regenerated nylon yarns, respectively, among others.”

Moore said jeans are an “integral part of our lifestyle, but we were adamant about producing denim only if the manufacturing process could meet our strict social and environmental standards.”

“Once we found the right suppliers and manufacturers, we were able to bring our own innovation and personality into this significant category,” Moore said. “It was equally important for us to achieve great quality and the right look and characteristics of our denim selections.”

And Outerknown’s denim is backed by a lifetime guarantee, which states that it will repair or replace damaged jeans, as well as accept older pairs for upcycling. Moore told WWD, “Our goal with SEA Jeans is to highlight the full life-cycle of great denim by utilizing the right [responsibly sourced] fabrications to create a product that lasts a long time.” He explained, “If your jeans tear or wear out at any time, we will repair or replace them at our cost. [But] the idea behind the guarantee is not just about long-lasting quality — it’s also about what happens when you are done with them.” 

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