Will Denim Ever Be Sustainable?

A pair of jeans - perhaps the most democratic garment of all time - is surprisingly one of the most difficult clothing pieces to render sustainable.  As demand for sustainable denim surges, brands and textile makers alike are facing uphill climb in rendering blue jeans, green.

In fact, since the day Levi Strauss and his partner Jacob Davis invented the first pair during the Gold Rush, denim jeans were never easy to produce without making a mess.

Given the massive amount of water and pesticides used to grow cotton, chemical-invasive stone washes and dyes dumped into rivers, sandblasting and energy consumed by factories, denim may very well still be one of the least eco-friendly fabrics of them all.

For these reasons and many more, many traditional denim brands, such as Levi's and G-Star, have implemented eco-friendly manufacturing processes and lifecycle procedures, in response to growing competition from new-gen designer brands who use sustainable denim in their collections, such as Nudie Jeans, Forbidden Denimeries and Lecavalier.

"We started to work with upcycled denim since the very beginning," Marie-Eve Lecavalier told NOWFASHION. In addition to her own brand, Lecavalier,  the 2018 edition of the Hyères International Festival of Fashion prize winner, worked for fashion industry leaders, such as Raf Simons and Alexander Wang. "We launched the brand only one year ago, so we are not yet in a stage where we can invest in innovative technology, but we use only certified recycled fabrics in our collections, in addition to upcycled denim," she said adding that all of the brand's denim fabrics are all sourced by Certex, a non-profit organization that is specialized in recycling jeans.

In addition to environmental issues, emerging brands and established ones alike are being motivated by the human aspect: denim factory workers themselves often receive very little protection from the chemical residues, heavy metals, strong bleach, oxidizing agents, as well as blue pigment dust, fine particles of pumice hazardous substances they work with. They are often subject to several considerable health problems, including respiratory diseases, hearing loss, skin cancer, and brain damage.

"To make real impact, education, collaboration, adaptation, scaling and acceleration are imperative," Sofie Schop, G-Star's Sustainability Director, explained to NOWFASHION, adding that open source industry collaborations between manufacturers, brands, and institutions are at the core of creating more a sustainable base for denim production. "Collaboration for us is imperative because it's a source innovation, which is at the core our brand," she added. "Our investments are not only limited to our mills, but expand across our entire supply chain. A good example of investing in such collaborations is the work we did with our partners Artistic Milliners, DyStar and Saitex, in the development of our Most Sustainable Jeans Ever.”

Neophyte brands whose start and end goal is to exist as a sustainable reality, have embraced innovative methods such liquid sulfur dyes instead over indigo,  computerized infrared lasers for a “used” or distressed effect, as well as the usage of enzymes-based chemicals and dry ozone processes that cancel out the need for bleach and water.

But can denim jeans ever become a truly sustainable product? As of today, 100% organic and eco-friendly denim is more an unattainable dream than actual reality.

“At a designer's level, one must accept that zero impact does not exist. I think that we must, first and foremost, be aware of the scale of impact that we have and the proportion of each production we make,"  Forbidden Denimeries' Founder and Creative Director, Mikael Vilchez told NOWFASHION. "Producing a unique stonewashed piece in Italy that the client will keep for 10 years will not have the same impact as the same stonewashed piece produced in a cheaper labor country with 5000 copies that customers will keep for 6 months."

In addition to a “less is more” mentality, an increasing amount of denim brands are investing in fiber innovations and water-saving technologies to avoid the thousands of gallons of water usually needed to manufacture regular denim fabrics. G-Star's self-proclaimed Most Sustainable Jeans Ever is, despite its presumptuous name, a testament to the effectiveness of this method. "Our main objective is to find sustainable solutions to close the loop of denim design and move away from creating waste," Schope continued, adding that G-Star uses the cleanest indigo dying technology on the market, which is why it was named the world's 1st Cradle to Cradle Certified™ denim fabric. In addition, the company washes them with only 10 liters of water, rather than the typical 40-70 liters. "We worked with our long-standing partner Saitex for the washing process where 98% of the water used to wash the jeans is recycled and re-used, while the remaining 2% just evaporates, leaving no water to be wasted or discharged into the local environment," she explained. "Finally, by not using any rivets and zippers, we made these jeans 98% recyclable post customer use. Instead of zippers, eco-finished metal buttons, designed to use no electroplating, were implemented."

Since the fabrics launch last year, G-Star has designed four more denim fabrics that hold the same certification. For the upcoming years, the denim brand wishes to further boost its sustainable advancements by using 100% sustainable cotton by 2020 and certifying that 90% of the other fabrics it works with are also sustainable.

Levi's, for its part, reported that the company is focused on significantly reducing water use in denim production. By 2020, the U.S. brand aims to make 80% of its products using techniques that reduce water usage by up to 96% from 67% at present. Levi's also plans to reduce cumulative water use in areas threatened by water scarcity, such as in India and Pakistan, where several of its denim mills are located, by 50% by 2025.

Moreover, brands are not solely looking into reducing the resources used during the production process of denim jeans, but also into extending the lifecycle of each denim product and becoming part of the circular economy. In this context, Nudie Jeans and Levi's invite customers to bring their pair of denim jeans back into their store or via pop-ups to be repaired, or encouraging resale via authorized partners.

"We have repaired more Nudie Jeans than ever, and with our Mobile Repair Station, we have traveled to new destinations to repair our customers' jeans," explained Nudie Jeans' CEO Joakim Levin said in a statement. "As part of an industry with such high use of natural resources, we must acknowledge our role and focus our efforts on high-risk impact areas, which for us are cotton growing and wet processing." And this quest for more sustainable denim could pay off on the long term.

In a 2018 joint report by the Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group,  potential savings and efficiencies gained through more sustainable brand operations could boost companies' profitability by between one and two percentage points by 2030.

A commitment to small quantities and a return to craftsmanship seem to be essential when it comes to redefining the way both the denim sector and its customers approach the development of sustainable denim.

And a general awareness also seems to be of significant importance: "In the long term, I want to become "ASAP": As Sustainable As Possible," Vilchez concluded. "I'd also like to come back to a more artistic and artisanal approach for my next Forbidden Denimeries collections. My main goal for the future is to raise the market's awareness of the issue of sustainability and contribute to a more thoughtful way of consuming."

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