The Sustainable Denim Wave: How Jeans Are Getting Greener

Sustainability has been discussed in the fashion industry for many years, if no more. Fashion, and shopping in general, are not sustainable. They are one of the industries that cause the most environmental damage. Beth Esponnette is the co-founder of unspun and creative director. The company specializes in zero-waste garment production. The fashion industry generates over 97 millions tons of waste each year, which includes textiles, chemicals and packaging materials.

Overconsumption and the production and distribution chain of clothing are all factors that contribute to fashion’s sustainability crisis. However, only a few major ready-to wear brands like Stella McCartney or Gabriela Hearst have integrated solutions into their business. In the more accessible brands, there are a few names like Everlane, Anthropologie or Reformation that strive to minimize waste and impact on the environment. Consider this: If you are a responsible consumer, whether you shop at the local mall or on Rodeo Drive you will be able to name a few popular brands that are associated with sustainability.

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Laurence Ellis

ShalomHarlow’s Regenerative Cotton Campaign for Humanity Group.

Greenwashing is a practice that some brands engage in to make themselves look good. They do this for marketing purposes rather than implementing useful strategies. What about sustainable capsule collections? Sarah Ahmed, CEO and founder of DL1961, says that a circular business model is a good start. But a better end would be a commitment to do so, or at least to initiate a plan. Ahmed stated that “we encourage consumers to become aware of this, and to push brands to think bigger and do better.” Esponnette continues: “It’s exciting to see sustainable capsule collections, but fashion brands and companies need to go beyond one-offs; producing sustainably must be the standard going forward.”

Fashion companies and brands must go beyond one-off collections to produce sustainably.

While brands have made great strides in creating quality, functional, and even aesthetically pleasing pieces, they still use sustainable practices. However, there are certain sectors that excel in this area. While denim is certainly nuanced and versatile, it doesn’t have to follow the same fashion rules as ready-to-wear brands. When consumers try on jeans, they know what to expect. Denim is made to be worn regularly, not just once or twice per month. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s free of pretense. The fashion in this area is casual, but never out-of-style. These are two qualities that you should keep in mind.

From the Ground Up

But let’s dig deeper. The path to sustainability is not all sunshine and rainbows. Denim was once one of the worst aspects of the fashion industry. Cotton must be grown to make jeans. This takes up space, depletes soil nutrients and encourages the use harmful chemicals. Amy Williams, CEO of Humanity Group which produces Agolde’s and Citizens of Humanity collections, said that conventional cotton farming uses pesticides and fertilisers in large quantities. This is harmful to the environment and also to those who use them. While the switch to organic cotton reduces chemical use, it does not address wider issues, such as soil degradation and mitigating the carbon loss due to tilling practices. Farmland is vital to the survival of the world outside the fashion industry. It’s simple: without farms, there is no food.

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Group for Humanity and Courtesy

Humanity Group Regenerative Cotton Program farm with bales of cotton.

Denim, unlike other ready-to-wear items, is damaged at the beginning of production. This means that there are many ways to prevent the problem. Denim is made of cotton, not blended fibers. This makes it more recyclable and reusable. It can also be regenerated. The DL1961 site states that “all the cotton we use is produced responsibly and has at least four international certifications in terms of quality and impact.” In addition to Recover(tm), we also use Cotton USA(tm), which is certified by Better Cotton Initiative. This allows us to trace our supply chain and ensure that the cotton we use meets social, environmental, and ethical standards.

Regenerative farming takes this recycling of fibers to the next level. Williams said that regenerative farming can reverse climate change, while improving soil fertility and human health. It also reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, and increases organic matter in soils by increasing photosynthesis.

The shift to organic cotton may limit chemical use, but it does not address other issues like soil degradation or mitigating the carbon loss caused by tilling.

You might be asking, “What is regenerative farming?” It’s simply a way for farmers to replenish their land and still produce a profitable output. You may remember what you learned in science: crop rotation, strategic water management, and soil diversity are all good for the long term, even though it takes more planning, education, time, and effort up front. The transition to regenerative farming practices may reduce crop performance and yield in the short-term, but it can be optimized over time without using pesticides, fertilisers and other depletive practices.

Humanity Group’s Regenerative Cotton Program partnered up with AEA in order to become an industry-leader in this type initiative. The program helped farmers in the U.S., Turkey and other countries where denim is made by the company transition to regenerative farming. Farmers are also people, and this is an expensive industry. Regenerative farming will benefit both the farmer and the land over the long term, while also reducing the carbon footprint of products that they produce.

Group for Humanity and Courtesy

Humanity Group Regenerative Cotton Program farm.

Wasting the waste

Next: How do you tackle excessive washing processes?

After the raw materials have been harvested, harsh chemicals, petroleum-based indigo, and multiple washing processes (the industry standard for 1500 gallons of water) are performed to achieve the desired texture and fade. Brands such as DL1961 control their entire manufacturing process, prioritizing supply chain transparency and working with similar facilities. This allows them to implement and follow through on strategies that promote sustainability. Ahmed said that DL1961 performs quality testing and control throughout the production process to ensure durability, comfort and fit. We monitor water, electricity, and other resources in order to ensure that each piece meets our standards of sustainability and efficiency.

DL1961 uses Jeanologia’s Environmental Impact Measurement software (EIM), which allows brands to monitor and understand the effectiveness of processes and areas for improvement. Ahmed stated that DL1961 recycles and treats 98 percent (up to 2700 gallons of water per day) of the water it uses. After it has been used in the production process, the water is pumped into our own water treatment plant where a bacteria consumes the indigo to make the water safe to be returned to municipal drains. We use waterless processes to reduce the harmful chemicals used in denim manufacturing. We also recycle post-consumer materials, which creates high-quality cotton with vintage-inspired finishes.

Humanity Group’s high-efficiency wash and dye machines can reduce water and chemical use by up to 50%. Ozone laundry processes, which combine electricity and oxygen to sanitize the product, consume 60 percent less than traditional wash systems, and dissolve once used. Eco-Stones, made from recyclable synthetic materials, reduce dust and other waste which can harm factory workers. Laser technology is used to create distressed looks. To achieve a distressed look, natural enzymes are used. Green-certified softeners and silicones reduce the use of harsh chemicals while giving jeans a perfect texture.

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Group for Humanity and Courtesy

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Cotton grown on one of Humanity Group’s Regenerative Cotton Farms.

Humanity Group uses indigo dyeing technologies such as INDIGOJUICE(r), KITOTEX (r) and INDIGO TEX to save 25 percent energy, 33 percent chemicals and 15 percent water compared to traditional methods. KITOTEX (r) is a natural substitute for petrol-based polyvinyl Alcohol (PVA), a sizing material used in denim. PVA is what you’re probably familiar with. This technology uses biopolymer chitosan which is made from insects, crustaceans and algae. INDIGO Juice(r) keeps the dyes on top of the fabric during washing processes. This allows for more efficient washing, and fading, while using less water.

Etica Denim’s solutions go deeper than some other brands. Agustin Ramirez is the owner of the brand. “We have a pending patent on our InCloud(r), which uses nanotechnology to treat fibers and fabrics at the molecular levels,” he said. This groundbreaking technology dramatically reduces the water consumption per pair of jeans, from 200-300 liters on average to only one or three liters. Our process uses 90 percent less water, and 70 percent lower energy than industry standards.

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Courtesy, DL1961

These methods require knowledge and resources, which is part of their investment. Some brands cannot afford to make such large investments, or they do not find them worthwhile. As companies continue to develop patented technologies that can help brands compete in an accessible, competitive market, they are no longer able to make excuses.

Weaving a culture of sustainability

Sustainability is a part of many brands. Some have departments that are dedicated to the cause. Others have it woven into their business. It’s true that this means more investment, but it is necessary to create a brand with a conscious, thoughtful approach. Luke Henning is the chief business officer at Circ, a science-backed fiber company that combines technology and responsible fiber production. He said, “The most important indicator of success for a company is whether it views sustainability as an important driver of future value, with direct oversight from the C Suite.” Without that support, even for sustainability and innovation teams projects often end in small-scale tests.

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Laurence Ellis

Shalom for Humanity Group’s latest Regenerative Cotton Campaign.

It can be daunting for companies and executives to make such a big change, especially if they don’t understand the nuances. This is a very real part of the industry that requires hefty research. Esponnette stated that “through [unspun’s] partnerships, we are happy to support fiber recycling in our works.” Sustainability teams and advocates must learn to present business cases first and then sustainability benefits.

Sustainability teams and advocates must learn to present business cases first, followed by sustainability benefits.

What can we as consumers learn from the science and research behind-the scenes that these brands promote? Williams said that education is the basis for all things. Understanding the factors that have an effect on the environment and what they are is key. It’s easy to Google “jeans”, and choose your favorite style, cheapest price, or coolest designer. But it’s increasingly cool to shop with a conscience. It’s hard to avoid shopping consciously for denim in some circles. But knowing what goes into the product can help you choose one that aligns with your values.

Denim brands and other brands that are willing to make their efforts and practices public while creating high-quality products for all types of customers will reap the rewards in the end, as regulations continue pushing for eco-friendly initiatives, and consumer attitudes lean toward intentional consumption. The denim industry, with its experimental and community-driven mentality, might have the solution to the fashion sustainability crisis.

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