PART 2 – DENIM (R)EVOLUTION IS HERE!
After several decades of unregulated and environmentally destructive practices, denim industry is finally cleaning up its act. As one executive from the Spanish denim finishing company Jeanologia said in River Blue documentary in 2016, “three years ago, about 16% of the jeans in the world were made in a sustainable way. Now 35 percent of the jeans are made more sustainably. About 6 billion pairs of jeans are made a year so that means 2 billion pairs are now being made in a more sustainable way.” This is a very encouraging number but still a long way to go to achieve a truly sustainable or better yet circular denim industry. Here are some of the most promising steps the industry has taken:
REDUCING WATER USAGE
The old processes of denim finishing to achieve “worn” look that usually required tremendous amounts of water and harsh chemicals are now being replaced with new technologies like LASER and OZONE for example. Jeanologia – one of the leading denim finishing companies in the world – uses light and air to finish jeans, very little water and no chemicals. With laser technology they can create those visual effects like whiskers and wear spots instead of sandblasting and stonewashing. With ozone technology they make color fading instead of using bleach and other harsh chemicals. Jeanologia works with some of the biggest denim brands in the world like LEVI’s, Lee, Wrangler, Calvin Klein, and even the fastfashion giants like Zara, H&M and Uniqlo. Watch this short video to see how these technologies work:
MAKING DYEING PROCESS CLEANER
Most of the denim dyeing today is done with synthetic indigo, which contains some potentially harmful chemicals and causes that intense indigo color water pollution as seen in some revers across China and Cambodia. More and more companies are now replacing these old method chemical dyes with new dyeing agents and technologies to save water and eliminate use of hazardous chemicals. For instance, these 2 companies are changing the way denim is dyed in a much more sustainable way: Bluesign® has one of the most stringent lists of restricted chemicals for dyeing and finishing, and offers tools to significantly reduce energy and water use. Smart Indigo company developed a technology where they use electricity to apply indigo dye to denim thus completely eliminating chemicals from this process!
USING ORGANIC OR RECYCLED COTTON & NEW MATERIALS
Many denim brands have turned to using 100% organic cotton, which saves substantial amounts of water and prohibits use of chemical pesticide and fertilizers, or they use a mix of recycled and new cotton to help reduce the general environmental impact of this yarn. A textile company Lenzing created a totally new fiber and technology to make denim fabric called TENCEL™ x REFIBRA™ which uses post-industrial cotton scraps and wood pulps as well as very little water in the process! Some of the biggest jean brands have been using this new fabric, like LEVI’s, Guess, Mavi, and Boyish to name a few. Suppliers of denim accessories like rivets, buttons, leather patches and zippers have also come up with great solutions and are using recycled metal or PET bottles instead of new raw materials.
INCREASING RECYCLABILITY OF DENIM
In 2019 Ellen MacArthur foundation launched “Jeans Redesign” initiative to basically challenge the whole denim industry and sort of sum up all of the above initiatives. The ultimate goal of this project and Ellen MacArthur foundation’s core mission is to make it circular! That means the entire process of making jeans should be re-envisioned: from the raw materials, to design and construction, to dying and washing, and then to properly recycling it. The Jean Redesign initiative is already working with such big companies as H&M, Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, Banana Republic and Wrangler to name a few. To participate in the project, a company must develop a plan to meet its four main criteria around durability, recyclability, traceability and material health.
What can we do as consumers?
Luckily, there are many ways we can make a better choice when buying our jeans today!
1. Look for denim made from organic cotton – with either GOTS, OCS or other domestic organic cotton certifications. You can read more about organic cotton on my previous post here, and learn about different sustainability certifications and standards here.
2. Buy vintage, upcycled/recycled denim or resell and rent your denim! Resell, repair and rental business models are experiencing a huge success and popularity especially with the millennials and GenZ generation. It is expected to double in value from $24 billion today to about $50 billion by 2023! Denim is perfectly positioned for success in this re-sell business model. It wears well, it holds up its shape for long and it actually looks cooler with time! There are many great resell platforms where you can buy your next pair of “pre-loved” jeans like ThredUp, Depop, and The RealReal to name a few. Remember, that by reusing our clothes for as long as we can, saves a great amount of water, energy and other resources and it reduces textile waste! Here are just few examples of brands offering more sustainable denim products and services:
– Vintage denim: what can be better for a denim enthusiast than a pair of true vintage Levi’s jeans? If you were not lucky enough to find a good pair in your local thrift shop, then check out this Levi’s Authorized Vintage collection of pre-worn iconic styles like the 501, 505 and 517!! This project was launched a few years ago, when an avid denim collector approached Levi’s with almost 65,000 pieces of authentic made in U.S.A. Levi’s® denim in an impeccable condition!
– Repaired denim: Swedish brand Nudie Jeans introduced their super successful Re-Use collection back in 2012. Each of their Re-Use online drops sells outs quickly and if you want to get your hands on it, better sign-up for the next drop! You can also get your old jeans repaired for fee in one of their Re-pair shops. In 2018 Nudie Jeans repaired ~55,000 pairs of jeans, reclaimed ~10,000 and re-sold ~3,000 pairs.
– Rental denim: if you live in Europe, look up Mud Jeans – a denim company from the Netherlands. Not only do they make their jeans from up to 40% recycled denim, offer free repairs, take back your old jeans in exchange for $10 towards your next purchase, but they also came up with an innovative “Lease a Jean” program – a business model where for a small monthly membership fee of €7.50 you can “rent” jeans and return them after a year of use.
3. Ethical denim – brands that put social justice at the core of their business model, almost always will also chose to work with more sustainable materials and processes. The most incredible story behind a denim brand that I just recently discovered is the one from Outland Denim. This B-Corp certified company was founded as an avenue for the training and employment of women in Cambodia who have experienced sex trafficking. So far they have helped and provided a stable employment to about 750 people. Today these women craft premium denim from the finest raw materials and their product sells in some of the coolest premium stores around the world. Outland Denim uses 100% organic cotton and their own wash and finishing facility which is equipped with industry-leading water and energy reducing technology.
4. Care better for your jeans – remember that a lot of energy consumption happens when we wash and dry out clothes at home. So be responsible by washing less frequently, using low energy washing cycle, cold water detergents and line drying in fresh air. Denim actually gets better with longer wear! And washing less prevents the color from fading and cotton fibers from breaking too quickly. Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh even admitted to not washing his jeans in the washing machine for over a decade!
So if you are thinking of buying another pair of jeans, ask yourself a question “how many jeans do I really need??” And if you still DO need more jeans then perhaps consider some of these options such as vintage or upcycled jeans, pre-owned or rental. Remember to check the material labels and certifications, buy from brands that use organic or recycled cotton and work with reduced water consumption finishing processes, as well as ethical denim brands. And as always be mindful when doing your laundry!