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MILAN — Green and blue continue to have a strained relationship.

Jeans have been the bottoms of choice for younger, socially aware people for the better part of two generations. But the production and care of jeans requires large amounts of water and energy, from the growing and processing of cotton to consumer care and the disposal of unrecycled pairs, and there is growing awareness of the environmental impact of jeans’ life cycles.

Levi Strauss & Co. conducted research showing that an average pair of jeans requires 3,500 liters of water over the course of a lifetime, and that more than 45 percent of that amount — about 1,600 liters — could be traced to time spent in wearers’ washing machines.

H&M has added a Conscious Denim line to the Conscious Collection introduced in 2011 and, like a growing number of retailers, has provided drop-off areas within its stores for clothes customers want to recycle. Replay launched an ad campaign that put environmental activists from 180 Amsterdam in featured roles. Pharrell Williams teamed up with G-Star Raw for a “Raw for the Oceans” denim line using bottles collected from the high seas.

But these actions and others have yet to dramatically change consumers’ awareness of their own contributions to ecological damage or those of many of the stores and brands from which they buy, begging questions such as how is a concerned consumer to distinguish between innovation and slick marketing, and how many consumers truly care.

Rob Harrison, co-founder of the U.K.’s nonprofit Ethical Consumer magazine and Web site, said since the late Eighties, broad patterns of interest in ethical consumption have remained the same.

“Between 5 and 10 percent of consumers — this is wherever you are in the world — are really into [these issues], and will make a lot of effort to campaign on company behavior and buy ethically all the time. So there’s a kind of core of very ethical people,” he said. “Then there’s a group of 20 to 30 percent who are not interested at all, at the far end of the spectrum….And then there’s this big lump in the middle, which is the remaining 60 to 70 percent, and this lot we classify as ‘sometimes ethical.’”

With the majority of consumers somewhat interested in ethical purchases, Harrison said “companies have a lot to gain and a lot to lose” by not investing in sustainable sourcing, manufacturing and infrastructure, and they cannot afford to treat ethical consumers as a niche market.

“If it was just a little niche, you’d do a superethical corner of your shop for the slightly crazy people who are different from everyone else. But that’s not what the demographic data tell us,” he noted.

Denim brands have responded to the world’s slow but steady drift toward more environmentally friendly practices, said Marco Lucietti, global marketing manager for ISKO, part of Turkey’s Sanko Group, which has invested heavily in renewable and alternative energy. ISKO produces an estimated 219 million yards of denim fabric annually.

“Absolutely, there is greater demand for eco-friendly garments,” he said, adding that interest was greatest in Northern Europe, where consumers are even willing to pay more for such products, as well as the U.S. and Japan. However, “jeans products need to be beautiful first, and eco-friendly second. Eco-friendly on its own doesn’t work as a concept,” he added.

Lucietti also noted that unless manufacturers monitor their entire supply chains and involve external watchdogs, the concept of “eco-sustainable” becomes subjective and meaningless.

Enter M&J Group, which has spent the last several years fine-tuning an industrial hardware and software system it calls Start to Measure, which evaluates the use of various resources such as water, energy, chemicals and even manual labor during garment washing processes. The apparel company, headquartered in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and specializing in denim, completed its new setup in 2013 and aims to have it certified in 2015.

Start to Measure allows M&J Group to “monitor all that happens inside our laundering facility — everything is monitored,” said Fabio Adami Dalla Val, the company’s trade marketing manager and head of research and development. “It allows you to trace every single batch, every single garment. We tested it over the course of a year to get our average values,” he said, adding that these figures cannot be altered manually.

In May, M&J Group began presenting the data from its technology to its clients, which include H&M, C&A, Celio and Jack & Jones. Seeing objective figures on the resources used in manufacturing, many companies are taken aback and intrigued, Adami Dalla Val said.

“It’s scary because for the first time it puts you before certainties; everything had been rather subjective until now,” he said. “But without measuring, you can’t improve, and this allows us to develop improvement plans.”

Adami Dalla Val also acknowledged that among consumers, M&J Group’s location in the same country where the infamous Rana Plaza factory collapsed in 2013 sometimes presents an image challenge for the company, which has received platinum-level certification from the U.S. Green Building Council and the official approval of the Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production, and is eager to position itself as ahead of the pack on sustainability.

“We understand the doubts, but M&J is cutting edge in every way,” he said firmly.

Alberto Candiani, global manager of the Italian firm Candiani SpA, part of the fourth generation of a family with a lengthy history in denim, also said the industry is leaning toward more environmentally friendly practices, but argued that the change is often misrepresented in marketing campaigns.

“Sustainability has always been communicated with a little green leaf, which I think gives a distorted image [and not much information],” he said. “To give an example from a different industry: every car that is made tends to be better than previous models. None of the new models pollute more than the old ones. We approach things this way — for us it’s about the evolution of product, and it’s obvious but it’s not very poetic.”

In addition, since many manufacturing processes in denim surrounding fibers, cloth and laundry techniques are complex, Candiani said there was widespread confusion among shoppers over what constitutes an avant-garde product, as opposed to one that simply respects current industry standards.

“We rely on a technical and scientific approach and it isn’t much fun as a story to tell,” Candiani said, noting that his company has invested significantly in reducing water and chemical use, for instance through its patented N-Denim dyeing technology. The system relies on nitrogen, which delays oxidation and accelerates the absorption of indigo into yarn. “I believe that sustainability must be guided by science” in ways that are quantifiable, he added.

In a context where consumers worldwide are quick to mobilize with online petitions and environmental organizations, counting on celebrities to champion their causes, manufacturers and fashion brands are under pressure to be perceived as ethical, but also to be more so than their competitors, said Lewis Perkins, senior vice president of development of textiles and apparel for the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. The San Francisco-based non-profit organization administers the Cradle to Cradle Certified Product Standard, a framework for assessing and improving a range of products.

Perkins, who is spearheading the group’s Fashion Positive Initiative, which applies its methodology to apparel and accessories, said Cradle to Cradle intends to go “deeper into the supply chain” by creating a kind of “public library” of innovative and environmentally friendly fibers, yarns, dyes and other materials that a collective of brands could draw upon.

“We’re attracting some brands that have persuasion [and] we have a pretty good mix of European and American brands, from luxury to mass market,” he said, confirming that denim will be part of the project.

While Perkins noted the issue of a product’s life cycle as a sustainability factor was contentious between luxury and fast fashion brands, Fashion Positive’s goal “is not to shame a consumer for having bought too much, but to focus on what we view as design flaws” — such as environmentally hazardous raw materials or production waste.

Consumers, Perkins said, “don’t want understanding sustainability to be hard” and don’t have time to research every product they purchase. “I want to know that you, company, and you, supplier, have had these conversations, and I don’t need to think about it,” he said, summing up the attitude of many shoppers.

Consumers can get a glimpse into the sustainability of jeans brands online by visiting goodguide.com, which provides assessments — through a zero-to-10 grading system — of major brands’ and retailers’ environmental and social policies. Patagonia, a champion of sustainability practices, enjoys the highest ranking of all apparel brands, at 8.2, while Levi’s leads the jeans category with a ranking of 7.8. Categories outside of apparel include a ranking for products.

Harrison of the Ethical Consumer said, “The oil and grease that makes it all work is third-party accreditation. Some of the huge consumer-facing multinationals have gone on record saying that they can see majority markets for third-party certified products by 2020 in Europe….The future is one where ethical products or certified products [are] going to be the norm.”

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