Wrangler's Foam Dye process. Photo courtesy of Wrangler

As getting green grows ever buzzier, denim cofounders and executives continue to push and test the boundaries when it comes to new fiber creation, wash processes and other ways of cutting back on the effects of making jeans.

As with anything, there appears no one preferred method of going green. Some companies are mad scientists when it comes to more visionary fiber blends, while others are looking at how close they can be to their production partners to cut back on carbon emissions.

Start-ups entering the scene are building boutique labels educating consumers who have come to be more exacting in what they expect from brands, and it’s helping push an industry forward.

“This next generation is really asking the questions of where do my clothes come from? How are they produced? In what conditions are they produced under,” said AMO cofounder and designer Kelly Urban.

Another denim leader charging forward on sustainability efforts by first tracing back its supply chain is AG Jeans. Through its vertically integrated facilities, AG Jeans maintains control over its denim at every stage of design, manufacturing and production, while enforcing a “strict ethical labor policy to reducing environmental impact.” A lot goes into the prominent “Made in L.A.” tag. As for water conservation, through its Ozone technology, AG cuts water consumption by 50 percent. During product development, AG reduces waste by cutting patterns more efficiently and recycling excess fabric scraps weekly. By the right hand, the detection of sustainable fibers such as Tencel and Modal are felt in AG denim, and the fibers are completely biodegradable.

Using the latest technology, AG ensures its manufacturing facilities are top-of-the-line, so consumers can see that, even during laundering — energy consumption is reduced by up to 46 percent, AG noted. For the coming year, AG is introducing a “new recycling apparatus” to further the sustainable conservation and recycling of water. With its collective sustainability and ethical practices, AG aims to show how the denim industry does more.

Here, in no particular order, WWD spotlights companies across heritage, vintage and emerging brands that are working to change the denim industry one step at a time.

Ética

Year Founded: 2019

Brand Spotlight: Ética is new to the scene of sustainable denim brands, but is making a splash. The Los Angeles-based, Mexico-made line is focused on energy-efficient, E-Flow machinery in its processes translating to recycled water for farmland and ovens instead of dryers. That’s so far allowed for 99 percent less water use and 63 percent less energy compared to the rest others in the industry, the company said. It’s also focused on natural dyes and softeners, plus lasers in what it says is 70 percent less use of chemicals than some of its peers.

“I think for us, we’ve all spoken as a company about how being sustainable doesn’t mean you have to be perfect all the time, but going through every step of development in manufacturing and making sure we’re the best we can be and striving to be better always,” said cofounder and chief operating officer Chelsey Santry.

Sustainability Goal for 2019: In its launch year, the team has so far focused on research and development, finding the right partners, but also educating its staff, Santry said. “Next year, we’re really going to delve into the chemical aspect of denim,” she said. “This year is all about water. Next year’s really going to be about experimenting with the market.” It will be trial and error, she said, in determining what sticks among consumers. Botanical dyes have garnered interest. The company’s factory also uses golf balls instead of stones during the wash process. More experimentation on those fronts will continue, Santry said.

Greatest Challenge to Reaching Your Goal: “The challenge is always how to do something that’s been done for decades a certain way differently,” Santry said. “We’ve been very fortunate with our factory. They’re very aggressively looking at becoming waste-free and going after the cutting-edge technologies that allow us to really develop and produce denim that is sustainable and better for the environment.”

There’s also the balance, too, Santry said, of putting forth something that is not only well-designed but sustainable for an ever-more-discerning customer base demanding good corporate citizenship. And then there’s also the challenge, as a new brand, of nabbing floor space at retailers, competing against heritage brands. “That’s a hurdle we’re jumping over now,” Santry said. “It’s just important to continue to educate our customers and our stores.”

A look from Boyish.  Courtesy image.

Boyish

Year Founded: 2018

Brand Spotlight: Education. It’s key in getting consumers and retailers on board, especially when you’re as in the weeds on the processes as Boyish founder Jordan Nodarse. “The educational format that we’re delivering to our customers through both our web site and our social media,” he said of what he’s most proud of the brand having accomplished thus far. “It’s not necessarily about what I know or what we do, but maybe what we can teach others to do.”

The company employs a number of tactics to create sustainable denim, such as recycling water and cotton, using Tencel lyocell fibers, working with Intertek on factory audits, and utilizes yarn, fabric and manufacturing firms within a 30-mile radius of one another to cut down on its carbon footprint.

Sustainability Goal for 2019: Nodarse plans on designing knits this year with a launch planned for next year, along with the continual goal of reducing cotton use.

“Our focus when we started Boyish has been on traceable cotton and recycled cotton,” said Nodarse who has been around when it comes to denim having worked at companies such as Reformation, Majorelle, Grlfrnd and Alliance Apparel.

“We’re trying to prevent as many scraps and trash from ending up in landfills, so how do we reuse it,” Nodarse said. “That’s the benefit of the whole concept of circularity with our brand, and it’s not just jeans. We even have underwear that we’re working on right now that’s made from recycled materials and something that doesn’t fiber-shed.”

Greatest Challenge to Reaching Your Goal: As with any brand, it’s all about the supply-demand balance, Nodarse said.

“As a brand, how do you expand products without becoming excessive or ending up with products you don’t know what to do with,” he said. “Sustainability really just means efficiency. That’s why you hear a lot about slow fashion in the realm of sustainability; it’s about finding the balance. Fashion’s always been run by people who are extremely wasteful and it’s because their focus isn’t on how efficient they can be. Their focus is skewed on other things.”

Atelier & Repairs tapestry designed into found textiles.  Courtesy image.

Atelier & Repairs

Year Founded: 2015

Brand Spotlight: Atelier & Repairs’ measure of success? How many tons of apparel it can resurrect, transform into new designs and then reinsert back into the marketplace. Last year, the total amounted to 6.5 tons.

Something less measurable but still a source of pride is the conversation the company is helping be a part of and advance. “Helping the fashion industry to push this movement of circularity forward,” said cofounder Marisa Ma. “People are becoming much more aware and I’d like to think that more of us as a collective are more vocal about the value of repurposing or upcycling all different kinds of things.”

Sustainability Goal for 2019: The goal this year is to reuse 7.5 to 8 tons of apparel. “More than sustainability is our responsibilities,” cofounder Maurizio Donadi said. “When you repurpose goods, you also come across ways that are not so green and we are very cautious about the way we do some of the work, the way we wash. In fact, a lot of the work is done by hand.”

Greatest Challenge to Reaching Your Goal: There are always limitations to production as a smaller company, Donadi said. However, at a higher level, the challenge is “trying to break this system of industry standards. It’s finding new systems of innovation and transformation. I think we need to keep on pushing and it’s difficult when you run a business because you want to grow and be healthy and survive. That’s not easy.”

Relaxed-fit overalls from AMO. 

AMO

Year Founded: 2014

Brand Spotlight: Tackling the issues that come with a big carbon footprint has been top-of-mind for AMO cofounder and designer Kelly Urban and team from the start. The company, headquartered in downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District continues to produce everything within just a handful of miles from its home office.

“We are 100 percent made here in Los Angeles,” Urban said. “I know there are a few denim companies that remain here with their sewing, wash, dyeing and finishing because I see them in the factory still. But as we move forward with minimum-wage increases, a lot of those denim companies that were based here have since moved production overseas, whether it be in China or Mexico. When we started AMO it was really important to us to keep the production here in Los Angeles. We continue to make that a priority, even though we’ve been approached several times for cost savings to go work in Mexico. It’s something that, quite frankly, doesn’t appeal to me. It’s more sustainable to keep everything in a five-mile radius.”

Sustainability Goal for 2019: There’s plenty to address and explore from Urban’s standpoint.

“I feel like denim has a lot of room for improvement just in terms of the wash processes and we also do garment dye, and there’s room for us to dive deeper into more environmental ways to wash and dye denim,” she said. “We also do garment-dye army pants so it’s not just indigo we’re working with. With that, it’s partnering with the factories and fabric mills that share that vision with you because, to me, it starts at the mill level.”

Greatest Challenge to Reaching Your Goal: While AMO has reduced its water usage with indigo, it’s the age-old issue of cost that remains a constant.

“Most of the cost with our washes is in labor; it’s not in water usage,” Urban said. “It’s literally hands sanding or grinding, which environmentally isn’t impactful. It’s impactful on a cost sheet, but I think we’re doing well there. Where it needs improvement is there’s so many new developments when it comes to washing denim and one of those things is laser.”

Lasers used to create the whisker effect on vintage-inspired denim is obviously used, but Urban said the effect is typically the appearance of a heavier hand that works on men’s jeans, but not so much on women’s, rendering a less-than-authentic worn-in look. And for a brand like AMO, that is built around denim with a perfectly worn, vintage aesthetic the technology isn’t quite there yet. On a macro level, pushing for technology is an onus on all brands, Urban said, to ask the laundries and other partners to invest in innovation.

Warp + Weft 

Year Founded: 2017

Brand Spotlight: CEO Sarah Ahmed sought to check a number of boxes when Warp + Weft launched a couple of years ago. Not only did she want a sustainable denim brand, but she wanted to offer something cost-effective and diverse in sizing for this men’s, women’s and kids’ brand.

“At Warp, sustainability meant finding newer, more innovative ways to recycle, upcycle, optimize and reduce an overall water and carbon footprint, all while never compromising on our quality, price and fit,” Ahmed said. “Now that we have achieved that goal, we are looking forward to how we can give back to truly create the first ever circular denim brand.”

The process to make the company’s jeans — of which 477,000 have been sold since inception — uses less than 10 gallons of water compared to many in the industry that use upward of 1,500 gallons. About 98 percent of that water used is then recycled. Some 75 body types are represented in the sizing across its collection.

Sustainability Goal for 2019: One-to-one is the philosophy guiding the company moving forward. “For every gallon of water we save, we want to donate one,” Ahmed said. “For every jean purchased, we would like to donate one. And for every flight I personally take, we are planting trees to offset the carbon emissions.”

The company, to celebrate its two-year anniversary on May 16, launches a place on its web site for consumers to track the company’s sustainability progress.

“Sustainability takes an entire community to be effective and we want to be an information resource for people who are looking to make more sustainable decisions, especially in fashion,” Ahmed said.

Greatest Challenge to Reaching Your Goal: “I think the challenge exists in changing a mindset globally that your favorite products can be made more sustainably, without compromising on quality and it’s up to the consumer to urge their brands to be more transparent and more proactive about it,” Ahmed said. “We are definitely going to try and do our part and we aren’t perfect but we would like to be the ones leading the way, but not the only ones in the space.”

CIE Denim

Year Founded: 2017

Brand Spotlight: Founded, led and designed by vintage devotee Kelcie Schofield, each pair of CIE jeans is a wholly one-of-a-kind, reconstructed design. Schofield herself handpicks each pair, all found in New York vintage stores; each style is then sorted, sized and deconstructed in the Garment District. Its upside-down denim concept, creating a unique jean that unites classic heritage looks and modern design; the brand has a patent on its upside down shorts product.

Sustainability Goal for 2019: CIE Denim said they plan to expand into a lifestyle brand and will “hunt down new styles across the U.S.,” while adhering to its sustainability platform and creative take on garment reconstruction. The company added that they will “explore innovative denim manufacturing techniques to create the most eco-friendly denim fabrics and washes possible while continuing to build on our recycled denim line.”

Greatest Challenge to Reaching Your Goal: The brand said its biggest challenge is to make sustainable, eco-friendly denim that is also affordable. 

CIE Denim’s signature inverted jean short. Photo courtesy of CIE Denim 

Wrangler

Year Founded: 1904

Brand Spotlight: Wrangler released its Rooted Collection, which launches today in Texas and Alabama. For the Rooted Collection, the jeans are made with 100 percent sustainably produced cotton that is locally sourced from farms in five Southern states, the company said. The jeans are produced with unique embellishments; its denim product is men’s-only.

Its water savings, as Wrangler saved over 3 million liters of water between 2007 and 2016, the company confirmed and said it plans to conserve another 2.5 million liters by 2020. Roian Atwood, director of sustainability at Wrangler, told WWD, “[We also created] completely traceable jeans — from sustainable farms to your closet. This month, we launched the Rooted Collection, which represents how we want to operate at Wrangler, to take responsibility for everything that’s in our products and to take case of the communities who carefully grow, make and wear them.”

Sustainability Goal for 2019: Atwood told WWD, “We have multiple brand goals for 2020. In addition to saving 5.5 million liters of water, we’re also planning to power our owned and operated cut and sew facilities by 100 percent renewable energy and use 100 percent preferred chemistry throughout our supply chain.”

Greatest Challenge to Reaching Your Goal: Wrangler said it is well on its way to reaching its three goals: “Of course, there were challenges along the way, including the global scale of our supply chain as well as the slow pace of technology adoption,” Atwood noted.

Jordache

Year Founded: 1969

Brand Spotlight: Jordache has evolved significantly since its beginnings in the late Sixties. Today, the brand is focused on premium denim and aiming to reach a young consumer base, in addition to adopting sustainable practices throughout its production and manufacturing processes. “Our customer is a stylish young customer. When we started, we were among the first to do designer denim. Now our customer has access and many choices. They care about the quality of the product and story of the brand as a whole,” said Liz Berlinger, president of Jordache. The brand employs denim mills that use 75 percent less water throughout the production processes and develops fabrics that require less water use at the laundry, and fewer processes in general.

Sustainability Goal for 2019: Jordache is in the process of transitioning to all sustainable fabrics for its pre-spring collection, and is working with L.A.-based laundries to use lasers for dry processing, which reduces the use of water and other resources. The company said it aims to use less water throughout its entire manufacturing process. In addition, Jordache offers many small batch limited-edition products to further reduce the waste of denim and other materials.

Greatest Challenge to Reaching Your Goal: Jordache told WWD, “With the market for sustainable manufacturing and production being as fluid as it is, the challenge is to stay ahead of the curve on an evolving landscape, to ensure we are providing our customers with the best product we can, with as minimal impact as possible.”

Jordache’s shrunken jacket. Photo courtesy of Jordache. 

Citizens of Humanity

Year Founded: 2003

A Few Words: 

Brand Spotlight: The vertically integrated, premium Los Angeles-based denim brand manufactures its entire product line at its own sewing and laundry facilities, all of which are located within 15 minutes of its design studio. “Before they are in your hands, each pair of Citizens jeans passes through the hands of at least forty others,” the company said.

Its use of the most efficient washers, dryers, dye machinery and lasers in more than 70 percent of its production, in addition to the introduction of reusable stones to replace pumice stones, is so far its greatest achievement in sustainability, Federico Pagnetti, chief operating officer, Citizens of Humanity, told WWD.

Sustainability Goal for 2019: Further reduction of the use of natural resources, according to Pagnetti.

Greatest Challenge to Reaching Your Goal: “Thankfully, more and more consumers are “voting” to demand  products that are made in a way that considers the impact on our future, not just how good something looks at the moment. This is a challenge we welcome,” Pagnetti said in reference to Citizens of Humanity and AGOLDE.

AGOLDE

Year Founded: 2013

Brand Spotlight: AGOLDE, a premium denim label based in downtown Los Angeles, is centered on “highlighting youth culture throughout the decades,” the company said. Its philosophy is centered on re-created styles from decades past, but with a modern twist. Each collection maintains an “antifashion-style perspective and an allegiant customer base,” drawing inspiration from emerging artists and impactful creatives in tandem with apropos brand messaging.

The company said its development of a vertically integrated manufacturing facility and using 100 percent of the most efficient equipment available to process its denim, are hallmark accomplishments for the brand.

Sustainability Goal for 2019: Recycling at least 90 percent of the water used in its manufacturing processes.

Greatest Challenge to Reaching Your Goal: N/A

For more Business news from WWD, see:

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Fashion Brand Nicholas K Cites ‘Longevity’ as Key to Sustainability

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