Everything You Need to Know About Sustainable Denim
From start to finish.
Not all jeans are created equally. Over the last few years, environmental-related concerns in the industry have sparked moves towards sustainable denim practices and fabrics. “From beginning to end of life, many contemporary denim businesses are pioneering these efforts while still offering stylish options,” Nia Silva, Senior Materials Strategist at trend forecasting agency Fashion Snoops, tells TZR. These types of denim, she says, are generated from low-impact materials and processes that aim to offset the inputs that are required to manufacture apparel products.
“Established brands have addressed the sustainable shift with specialized collections or deeper internal work done to restructure environmentally harmful pain points within their supply chains or vetted assessments of their global footprints,” Silva, who forecasts and tracks innovations in the materials space, explains, saying that traditional denim manufacturing has often been scrutinized for its exceedingly high water and energy-intensive processes. “From dyeing and finishing, and its use of pesticides from cotton fiber cultivation [the industry is] mitigating harmful environmental impacts.”
Some argue that truly sustainable denim doesn’t technically exist. “No matter anyone’s good intentions, none of the products made inside of the global fashion market, including denim, are truly sustainable,” says Corey Page Spencer, Co-Founder and head of Global Sales & PR at AMENDI, a traceable denim brand that launched in 2019. “In denim, sustainability requires three major dimensions to be in balance with each other — social, environmental, and economical — but on a global scale, none of these dimensions are currently in balance.” Unfortunately, it is impossible to operate inside these systems sustainably, because fashion production has an impact on the environment no matter what.
Spencer believes that you can make a microcosm of sustainable products, however, no one has really done it and been economically “successful” to his knowledge. This is because traditionally, the more successful you are as a brand the more growth and more waste and resources you consume, which makes the system become further unbalanced — it’s a continuous cycle of waste.
Alternatively, he says, you can do what AMENDI and other brands are doing: Leverage existing systems towards something marginally better by using organic, regenerative, or deadstock materials, and utilizing non-toxic and water-saving technologies, common-sense supply chains, transparency, and traceability. The last part is to share learnings and information so these issues can be more readily addressed and improved collectively instead of being owned by a single brand.
Spencer says that the term “sustainable” has become so trendy it is now practically a necessity that your brand uses it to gain traffic to your site. “If you want to capture consumers who are generally interested in ‘sustainable denim’ you need to use that phrasing in your site.” He and his co-founders have made a point to be mindful of how they use the term and not further complicate messaging to perpetuate greenwashing.
Ok, But What Makes Denim Not Sustainable?
Spencer says that since “sustainable denim” isn’t a real thing, but well-intentioned products are, it might be more beneficial to describe a few things that make denim un-sustainable in the first place, starting with cotton.
“Cotton requires a lot of water, and if made commercially, also requires a lot of pesticides, which are toxic,” he says. “Cotton also sucks up soil nutrients and it takes a while to replenish those nutrients.” Commercial cotton typically uses irrigation for its supply, which pulls from potable sources, also requiring a higher volume due to the use of water-based pesticides.
“Cotton as a crop, commercial and organic, takes up over 2.5% of all arable land on Earth,” he explains. “There are approximately 25 million tons of cotton produced in a given year world-wide, and only 3.2 million tons were organic – or roughly 13 percent.” According to Spencer, organic cotton is the bare minimum standard for any “sustainable” denim. “Bottom line, you are greenwashing if you say you are a “sustainable” denim brand and not at least using organic cotton,” he says.
New Innovations in the Sustainable Denim Space
“Starting from the humble cotton seed, many sustainable denim [brands] are employing GOTS [global organic textile standard] certified yarns and vetted accreditation systems like Bluesign,” says Silva. “Mills are taking greater efforts to minimize waste and maximize water and energy-efficient technologies throughout the spun yarn spinning process.” But also, Silva says from the fabric to garment stage, sustainability must also be considered within its social context, through fair labor and wage practices as well as worker safety as well as the environmental impact of distribution.
“A common misconception is that most of the environmental impact of denim is generated from its production, however a significant amount of research on product life cycles of denim, take the research on Levi's 501 for example, has suggested that often what's lesser-known and more harmful is the environmental impact of denim post-purchase,” Silva explains. She believes consumers aren't mindful of the energy and water resources expended when washing a pair of jeans repeatedly, and as a result, sustainable clothing care practices, like less frequent washings in cold water and air drying, are key considerations denim brands have yet to educate consumers on.
Fibers are being grown from regenerative farming practices that protect soil health, as well as organic cotton that has been improved to produce higher yields. There is also increased interest in comparable alternatives to cotton like hemp, which requires less water and pesticides, or lyocell, which requires less acreage and water, and recovers more waste through its manufacturing process.
“From a design perspective, sustainable denims are taking into account the ease of recycling or biodegradability post-use,” says Silva. “That means less synthetic yarn blends, and limiting metal components, and instead opting for yarn tacking or bio-based closures.” Many are also foregoing pre-distressed finishes as it saves on energy, time, and prolongs the life of the garment.
If treatments are desired, then ozone and laser finishes are leveraged over chemicals, while dyes are either being engineered to use fewer chemicals and less water or not being used at all. “We’re seeing a continuance of the ‘less but better thinking’ and the resulting shift towards more raw and undyed materials,” says the trend forecaster.
Which Brands Are Paving the Way for Change?
Over the past few years many brands have shifted their efforts towards sustainable denims, but a few have been paving the way since the beginning. “Nudie Jeans is an example of a brand that has always considered all sustainable aspects of denim with their adherence to fair living wages, supplier transparency, certified organic fibers, and garment repairing services while similar aspects are also offered by Patagonia,” says Silva. Nudie has been pioneering organic cotton in denim since 2012. “It's all about taking the greatest extent of possibility or responsibility that we can [have] throughout the entire supply chain all the way down to cotton farming and fiber sourcing, and making sure we act responsibly,” says Kevin Gelsi, Sustainability Coordinator at Nudie Jeans.
Everlane has been a proponent of “complete transparency” in terms of their denim suppliers, materials, and pricing — noting online that their factory recycles 98% of its water and air dries the denim to cut energy usage (the brand has received recent criticism for its labor practices). Others to note include Outerknown which relies on natural fair-trade materials, Mud Jeans which only uses recycled material, Armedangels which offers low impact finishing methods, and Unspun which follows a no-to-low waste framework based upon customized orders. There’s also upcycled denim and vintage denim stores like Re/done, The Series, B-Sides Jeans, Tired Laundry, and Hellmart.
“I think our biggest contribution [at AMENDI] might be our Fabrication Facts tag – which breaks down the information in each garment like the Nutrition Facts tag on groceries,” says Spencer. This tag was created to start a conversation with the customer, to get people thinking that what and how their clothes are made is as important as what is in their food and how it is produced. We also built traceability into each garment, which is meant to act as a guiding light for the customer through the forest of all this sustainability information.” Recently, the brand has also been highlighting regulation and legislation that could shift or alter the industry towards a more sustainable future.
“Our latest project is with Politically In Fashion and involves calling for an update to the FTC Green Guides, which are a set of regulations meant to curb greenwashing. But, they aren’t effective enough.” Their goal is to get the Biden Harris administration’s FTC directors to review and update the guides so that greenwashing is treated like a false advertisement.
How Can We Make the Denim Market More Sustainable?
“The irony of denim was that it was originally made to last,” Spencer says. “The concept of denim trousers — jeans — was made to replace canvas pants that constantly broke. So, it’s terribly ironic that we are now asking 150 years later how to make the denim market more sustainable.” However, there are a couple of ways this can happen; more vintage and upcycle stores, more suppliers focus on recycled water and non-toxic processes, more organic cotton, and more protection and uplifting of organic regenerative farming and laborers across supply chains. Additionally the banning or regulation of toxic substances, checks on greenwashing (New Standard Institute is already doing this), and more regulation and more easily recycled denim fabrics (less blending of polyester-based stretch components).
Sustainability, Silva believes, is more holistic than it is prescriptive in its concepts. “As a result businesses can try incorporating triple bottom line frameworks, disclosing suppliers, conducting life cycle assessments, and partnering with environmental organizations to uphold and to put in practice the sustainable efforts they preach.” The Slow Factory and Fashion Revolution are two leaders in the space.
“The overwhelming majority of denim players say the industry needs to get more collaborative for it to get circular, which would allow for more interconnectedness in systems that oftentimes are obscure and segmented,” Silva says. For example, waste produced in these factions could get repurposed for other goods or industries, i.e some denim brands are donating fabric waste to be used in industrial insulation. “Speaking more broadly, to truly change the landscape of the denim market, brands have to begin reframing their thinking from sustainability as a subset within their organizations to the ethos driving its success.”