The way to sustainable denim

Sustainable denim: We have the will, now where’s the way?

From staunch believers to sceptics, it was hard for anyone to avoid sustainability at London’s Denim Première Vision show. As a few visitors noted, it almost felt like every company had to make some commitment to environmentally-conscious production. That feeling, and the challenges of bringing sustainability to a notoriously wasteful industry, have bred a noticeable scepticism. Any company can say they support sustainable denim, but has the term become another buzzword, allowing companies to promise much while delivering little?

Therefore, the aim of Denim Première Vision’s Smart Talk series this edition was to highlight the way forward to match the will for sustainability. Ideas ranged from the scientific to the consumer-focused, but all aimed for the same goal – a denim industry that is more circular, less wasteful and more environmentally-conscious.

Another recurring theme also emerged to move the industry’s thinking forward on the issue – accountability. Consumers are keen to buy environmentally- conscious products but with so many promises and perceived slow progress, how can suppliers prevent cynicism? What does sustainability really mean? And how can suppliers show clear measurable results?

These questions are especially important when consumers are expected to pay a premium for more sustainable products. In recent research, while 60 per cent of consumers said sustainability was an important factor when deciding what clothes to buy, just 3 per cent were willing to pay a premium of 21 per cent extra. And around 20 per cent of respondents refused to pay more all together. This conflict, between support for sustainable fashion and reluctance to increase spending, requires suppliers to come up with creative solutions.

The programme opened with some consumer-focused ideas from Mud Jeans and Blue of a Kind; two success stories from denim’s circular economy movement. The idea is simple for both suppliers. Mud Jeans produce products that are designed to be recycled, re-used or upcycled. Under their leasing system, which accounts for 25 per cent of sales, consumers are encouraged to return their jeans when they are worn out or no longer worn. Co-owner Dion Vijgeboom explained the system is designed to “create awareness with customers that what they have is not just fast-fashion – it is valuable.”

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Giusy Bettoni, Fabrizio Consoli, Eva Engelen, Dion Vijgeboom

Recycling also plays an important role in the circular production process, as Mud Jeans attempt to have a neutral effect on the environment. Their production process uses a plant that recycles 95 per cent of its water (the other 5 per cent evaporates during production). And going forward, the company plan to use more recycled cotton in their jeans to further reduce waste.

Blue of a Kind approach the same problem of waste from a luxury angle, offering unique jeans redesigned and restyled from vintage pairs. Founder Fabricio Consoli summed up the company’s thinking with a simple idea – “the product with the lowest cost to the environment is the product which already exists.” There is also an individuality to their products, which make their recycled nature into a fashion statement by proudly showcasing mismatching patches of denim as a stylistic choice.

However, while the progress made by both companies was impressive, neither Blue of a Kind or Mud Jeans produce the sort of budget jeans worn by the majority of people. That’s where the work of C&A comes in.

“We have to be honest. We have to be transparent” – Sevgin Sicim, C&A

The brand, which is partnered with Fashion For Good, has taken major steps towards making sustainability affordable for everyone. Building on their “designed to be recycled” cotton t-shirts line, the company has succeeded in producing jeans for a retail price of €29 that pass the Cradle to Cradle Certified (C2C) production standard.

The achievement has allowed C&A to balance their goal to produce a sustainable product without increasing their retail price and has given them measurable proof of their work. The C2C standard requires companies to design products from nature which can then be returned to nature. This can be done by maximising the use of recycled content in products, manufacturing using renewable energy, and being aware of the environmental effect of chemical ingredients used in production.

It is also a strict measure, where products are marked on five categories and certified by the weakest one. That means if a product fails one category, it will receive the lowest possible mark. Sicim, alongside C&A design manager Jens Hesse, noted that the company needs to be clear and transparent about how it grades the sustainability of its products, and certifications like C2C are a good way to communicate their work to consumers.

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A similar idea was put forward by Sedef Uncu Aki of Orta, who have used QR codes to allow consumers to easily view the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of their products. LCAs help to give consumers a complete of view of a product’s impact on the environment, from production to transportation. Orta’s work to make environmental information more accessible is an important step towards making sustainable denim accountable to consumers. And the more consumers know about the denim they buy, the more they can put pressure on companies and retailers to act responsibly.

Technology meets demand

However, while raising awareness is important, progress in sustainable denim requires technological advances to be successful. Aki noted that early example of sustainable or recycled denim were “very ugly” and failed to interest many consumers. That’s why various Smart Talks focused on technological solutions to shake sustainable denim’s reputation for being uncomfortable and unfashionable.

At Orta, the company has been working with Lenzing Fibres to produce denim using Refibra technology, which upcycles cotton scraps from production to make high quality fibres for fabrics. By reusing cotton leftovers, Refibra helps Orta to create a circular production system where waste is minimal and the amount of pure cotton in products can be maximised. Tricia Carey of Lenzing proudly declared that Refriba sets out a way to meet the will for recycled products.

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As for the need for comfort, Stefano Aldighieri of Arvind and Razvan Popesa of Directa Plus spoke earlier in the day about their partnership to produce denim textiles enhanced with graphene. The material, which is a form of carbon consisting of a single layer of atoms, organised in a honey-comb structure, has been talked up by scientists for years. The reason why is because it has many potential uses. It is incredibly strong, almost transparent and can conduct heat and electricity.

In May, Arvind and Directa Plus announced a collaboration to combine denim fabrics with “G+” graphene-based products. Aldighieri noted two things about graphene that appealed to Arvind – its potential for environmentally responsible production and technological advancements. The features of graphene provide opportunities for significantly more durable products and denim fabrics that can regulate changes in temperature, therefore improving comfort for wearers. In the more distant future, Aldighieri noted potential to use graphene’s connectivity to produce a pair of jeans that can charge a phone in its pocket.

“We need to balance the demand for innovation and performance with the need for sustainability” – Lorenzo Rescali, VP of BYR International

The work of Advance Denim and SolucellAir is also paving the way forward for suppliers who want to use natural fibres while benefiting from technological advances. Solucell lets suppliers enhance cotton by creating a three-dimensional hollow channel system inside the fabric. This makes the cotton fabric more lightweight and softer to touch, as well as improving its ability to manage moisture and temperature.

In their partnership with Advance Denim, Solucell allows for the production of 100 per cent cotton denim without compromising on quality. “We can have a 100 per cent cotton product that performs like a cotton polyester,” Lorenzo Rescali explained. This means the production of denim products that are easier to recycle while matching consumers’ desire for innovative new designs.

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The way forward

Although the mood of the talks was overwhelmingly positive, there was a sense that we are still talking about denim’s future rather than the present. But, change is also needed quickly. Francois Souchet from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation opened his talk with some shocking statistics:

  • 73 per cent of materials end up either incinerated or in landfills
  • While there has been a 40 per cent decrease in the time clothes are worn for, clothes production has doubled

So the problem is not just that there are more people in the world. It is also that we are disposing of our clothes more quickly and with less thought.

Souchet’s work for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is focused on “accelerating the transition to a circular economy” in denim and he is aware radical change is needed. Improving recycling in the industry is partly a design issue, as some products (such as those not made from 100 per cent cotton) are more difficult to reuse than others. It is also an issue of awareness. He referred to the success of campaigns against plastic pollution for raising awareness of the issue among the public.

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However, suppliers are optimistic that the message is finally coming through. As Aki said: “At the beginning, we were really just talking with ourselves and the industry how we can improve this. But, in the last two/three years, it has increased a lot through the new generation and also through social media. Now, everybody wants to incorporate sustainability somehow, either for fashion or for trend or for marketing.”

“I think right now, we’re at a point where we can really make a market for these products,” Carey agreed.

In Souchet’s opinion, the campaign for sustainable denim needs support from all sides to be successful. “You really need industry action, awareness in the population and governments stepping in to really enable the system to change,” he said.

As shown by these Smart Talks, the industry is prepared to take action and consumer awareness is slowly but surely becoming a reality. Denim is still on a journey towards sustainability and there is certainly more work to be done. But, the difference now is the industry is ready with serious solution to make it a reality. Sustainable denim is no longer just an aspiration – it’s a realistic possibility.

Go further with the sustainable denim fabrics of the season and the responsibly-produced denim outfits examples reports.

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