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Denim may be just one category within fashion, but in many ways, it’s leading the greater industry forward when it comes to sustainability.

And that may be because, as one of the most polluting categories, denim has been most closely watched for its adverse impacts.

To date, much of the innovation has been to curb traditional reliance on virgin cotton, harmful chemicals and dyes, and excessive water use — which experts cite as anywhere from 500 to 1,800 gallons — to make a single pair of jeans.

Along this road to cleaning up denim, the industry has stood out for its ability to innovate, cooperate and mobilize data while still leaning into its heritage. 

Denim’s Evolution

If you ask Ebru Ozkucuk Guler, senior corporate social responsibility and sustainability executive at Turkish denim mill Isko, which supplies denim for Madewell and Los Angeles-based sustainable fashion label Reformation, innovation has ramped up in recent years.

“We have made great strides with creating denim products that are fully traceable and holistically responsible, definitely leading the rest of the industry in that sense — as denim has been scrutinized more in the past decade, it has incentivized us to innovate faster,” Guler said. “To truly define ‘sustainable denim,’ we must understand every step: from field to factory, shop floor, use phase and end of life. Each part has an important role to play in the end metrics and how we design. Sustainability, first and foremost, begins at the design phase. At Isko, this design phase begins with innovative yarn design and development process by a century experienced parent company, Sanko Tekstil.” 

Although an early adopter of organic cotton, Isko has been developing a number of innovations under what it calls its “Responsible Innovation” approach, including its “fully responsible fabric initiative” called R-Two, named for its use of recycled and reused materials. 

“It is in the choice of the raw materials, the spinning, weaving, washing, finishing and the creating of the final garment. Every fabric we make, from traditional denim to our patented concepts, is the result of a careful assessment toward a key set of sustainability metrics. We call this mind-set our Responsible Innovation approach,” Guler said. “It goes beyond raw material selection, to impact our employees, and the processes and systems we have in place with the goal to deliver exceptional quality with sustainability in mind. It extends from the process and business model to the actual products.”

As with Isko’s R-Two development, responsible cotton alternatives like Tencel and Refibra, produced by 80-year-old textile manufacturer Lenzing, or Circulose, made by Swedish pulp fiber producer Re:newcell, are cropping up where, traditionally, cotton was king as companies today aim to minimize impact.  

What matters now more than ever, in denim’s trajectory, according to Nicole Murray, denim industry veteran and founder of consulting group N-ovative, is finding cleaner ways to make jeans.

“During the last 20 years, key innovators and researchers in the industry dramatically changed sustainable denim,” she said. “By examining how fibers are created, it became clear that there was, and is, an opportunity to reduce the amount of water used in the process. Chemicals and finish innovation are also helping to reduce the environmental impact. Now the industry is embracing transparency; the where, how and who is manufacturing denim.”

With expertise in brand-building and sustainable manufacturing for denim, N-ovative’s clients include Dollhouse, Jones New York and AG Jeans. The group’s aim is to help brands and retailers create a “dynamic product,” while lessening social and environmental impact. 

Dynamic denim, Murray said, must embody transparency, durability and circularity, and brands such as Etica Denim, Boyish, Reformation, Mud Denim and Re/Done, she added, have been answering the call to make denim that does more. 

“If a company is making minimal effort to create sustainable denim, it will likely lose credibility and, ultimately, the consumer,” Murray said. And as market research firms cite sustained “confidence” for eco-friendly denim even where consumers are showing a return to conventional comfort amid remote work, it will prove challenging for those not prioritizing clean denim to get the consumer’s attention. 

Hunger for Innovation and (Shared) Data 

Ask a denimhead to list off denim industry innovations and they will cite technologies specific to a certain stage like Calik’s Washpro for extending life and Jeanologia for laser and eco-finishing, because of what Murray calls “proven” technologies, as well as proven data collection.  

“It’s important for denim brands and retailers to see actual data to be able to measure how their product impacts the environment and to have clear transparency in the manufacturing of their product from fiber to finished goods,” added Murray, who mentioned Jeanologia’s program called Environmental Impact Number, designed to help laundries and garment finishers measure the data. 

On its web site, Jeanologia says: “No measuring, no improvement,” which is a principle equally needed across the entire fashion industry.

Another takeaway to emulate from the denim industry may its cooperative mind-set when it comes to innovation.

Denim pioneer Levi Strauss & Co. introduced its Water<Less program following a campaign that began in 2010. In recent strides, the company recalibrated its industrial garment finishing methods to reduce water usage at its laundries by as much as 93 percent. But instead of hoarding secrets, Levi’s open-sourced its proprietary techniques and water-savings formulations, inviting direct competitors to its Levi’s Plaza at its headquarters in San Francisco.

Cumulatively, these efforts create greater measurability, and thus accountability, along the value chain. 

Snags in Progress  

Asked what stage she finds denim has made the greatest strides in leading the rest of the fashion industry toward sustainability, Guler said: “There is still so much room for improvement across all stages, especially on the brand and retailer side; they ultimately have the biggest influence as they determine their design, sourcing and buying practices.”

The “complex interdependencies and relationships throughout the supply chain,” she said, mean all players must contribute to sustainable change, which is why Isko is adamant about upholding its part of the equation: “to create the most responsible and innovative product from farm to fabric — taking every single sustainability criteria into account — and to enable our brand and retail partners to conduct responsible business.”

While individually, brands set out their own sustainability targets, a collective call-to-action didn’t surface until July 2019, with the Jeans Redesign initiative under the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular.  

At launch, The Jeans Redesign initiative counted only 16 companies participating but has since tripled to 53 players across the value chain, including heritage brands like Gap, fabric mills like Advance Denim, and manufacturers including Saitex, signaling what Francois Souchet, lead of Make Fashion Circular, called “broader conversations on circular design.”

“Based on the principles of the circular economy, the guidelines will work to ensure jeans last longer, can easily be recycled and are made in a way that is better for the environment and the health of garment workers,” Souchet said. 

The Jeans Redesign initiative’s guidelines aim to foster greater participation in garment durability, material health, recyclability and traceability, dotting the entire life cycle of denim by specifying minimum requirements. For example, fabric mills must adhere to strict wastewater guidelines from chemical management standard-setting body Zero Discharge Hazardous Chemicals, while the jeans need to meet a minimum laundering requirement of 30 washes and be composed of at least 98 percent cellulosic fibers for ease of recycling.

Where appropriate, Make Fashion Circular also asks for third-party verification on reported data. For a final stamp of approval — meaning disclosure on the Make Fashion Circular web site, as well as the physical approval to use Jeans Redesign logos on garment tags — reporting compliance must be met. 

Although some denim authorities are missing from the initiative, it’s already yielding concrete results — with redesigned denim from Mud Jeans, Fairblue and Outland Denim already on the market. Notably, the progress comes at a time when other pilots, mainly those centered on circular packaging, have been delayed by the pandemic. The rest of the redesigned jeans will be on the market prior to May 2021.

Denim Doesn’t Die 

Under a desperate need for industry-wide emissions reduction, denim experts are betting on a couple key priorities for continued progress. And unsurprisingly, the 150-year-old industry known for utility and durability is urging brands to design better and consumers to wear garments longer. 

“The beauty of denim is that it changes and evolves over time,” said Paul Dillinger, vice president and head of global product innovation at Levi Strauss & Co. “Your favorite jeans today probably look a lot different than they did the day you bought them. My favorite pair of [Levi’s] 501s achieved peak beauty after about nine years of regular wear.” 

Dillinger believes finding ways to engineer that value into other products and sectors of the industry will prove most challenging. 

As Souchet said, “The top priority for fashion is to work so clothing is used more,” which could prove the fast-track for the industry to capture lost value and tackle issues like climate change and pollution. 

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