PARIS — On the sidelines of the recently wrapped Première Vision Paris textiles fair, a group of experts from the denim world gathered for a panel hosted by leading Turkish denim mill Isko on the “Unlimited Possibilities of Responsible Denim.”

Ebru Ozkucuk Guler, CSR executive at Isko; Miles Johnson, a designer at Stan Ray denim who has worked at companies including Patagonia and Levi Strauss & Co.; Rachel Pearce director of denim consultancy Denimhand, and François Girbaud hashed out the topic.

Isko's sustainable denim panel in Paris.

Isko’s sustainable denim panel in Paris.  Courtesy

Girbaud, who at the intimate event also presented his third sustainable denim Eyether capsule for Isko, said he’d experienced an epiphany about the harm denim was doing to the planet after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when he saw “all these people from the communist countries arriving in acid wash jeans.”

Among the takeaways, for Johnson, who sees food industry trends as “a good indicator for where the clothing industry is headed,” the way forward for any company looking to become more sustainably conscious is transparency. “They just need to open their doors and their information up, and naturally what happens is people start to clean up their act. Because the consumer now starts to want to know more about their product,” he said, adding that it is high time, with all the confusion over certification, for governments to start implementing standards.

Citing the focus on intelligent garments at PV, including technology capable of detecting whether a material is real or counterfeit, Pearce said: “We need to put that technology to use and use it to track sustainability where people can go into a store, scan a code and see immediately where and how that garment was made. That kind of transparency and traceability is the future,” she said.

The group agreed that the idea of phasing out cotton use is not realistic, but embracing new approaches to supplying cotton and implementing waste management is vital for the industry’s survival, they said.

“We’re not going to stop doing cotton jeans, so let’s just do it better. But you have to have a big idea for 25 years down the road that everyone signs up for, and then we can all start trekking toward the same spot. Unfortunately we’re not yet, and it’s all still a bit scattered,” Johnson said.

“Cotton now has a bad name, like plastic. If people hear plastic now they go, ‘Ooh, bad.’ It’s not bad, the world just isn’t set up so that we can handle recycling, because we haven’t invested in waste disposal, so we’re not catching plastic at the end and turning it back into fiber,” he added.

Pearce picked up the thread. “We can grow cotton better, we can be more responsible with cotton, but our biggest enemy is the amount that’s going to landfill, to waste. But the cotton that’s going to landfill, it’s going to biodegrade; it’s the polyester we should be worried about, it currently stays in our environment for up to 120 years before breaking down,” she countered.

“I have every respect for Patagonia, but remember who invented those great polyester fleeces. We all know that those tiny fibers are now in our water system, and they’ve been detected in human bodies now as well as our fish,” Pearce added.

“Those tiny fibers of polyester is a polyester that you’ll find in every stretch jean and a lot of denim that’s going to landfill. We need to be a little more objective about the materials that we start the process with.”

On the subject of the need to take action, Ozkucuk Guler gave a shout out to the smaller denim brands, saying they should explore new technologies “as they have less to lose.”

“They can invent something different,” she said.

“We are in an incredibly wasteful industry, [but] I do commend everyone in the denim industry because at least we’re a step ahead of the sportswear industry,” concluded Johnson. “People are having these conversations a lot more in denim than they are in anything else.”

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