Skip to main content

Denim Experts Talk Trash at Kingpins Transformers

If there is any doubt that the waste produced by the global fashion industry is having a real effect on the ecosystem, Terry Townsend, a consultant on cotton-related commodity issues, had this fun fact to share at Kingpins Transformers: Polyester has existed for just 60 years, but scientists have discovered bacteria that eats it. “Nature has evolved to digest something that didn’t exist that long ago. If it eats polyester, what else does it eat? Life-forms have evolved to feed on this food source.”

Garbage was the hot—and gross, steaming, stinking—topic of conversation at Kingpins Transformers in Amsterdam, the conference series devised by Kingpins Show Founder Andrew Olah to draw attention and bring solutions to the environmental and social challenges the denim industry encounters. The conference’s theme, “Garbage: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” examined ways the industry can reduce waste and confirmed what many influential people in the industry have been alluding to in recent seasons: the need for an industry-wide association that acts as a political unit to tackle sustainable issues.

At the seminar, Olah broke it down in a very cut-and-dry manner, asking attendees, do you use paper towels or the electric hand dryer to be more sustainable? “If we don’t know how to dry our hands, how are we going to solve problems in the denim industry?” he asked.

Sustainability is contra to fashion’s agenda,” said Haysun Hahn, New York City-based trend forecaster and the keynote speaker at the event.

Related Story

In her presentation, Hahn said it is a natural tendency for humans to want new and innovative things—that’s evolution—and up until now it’s been up to the fashion industry to help fuel that addiction. However, Hahn says designers are losing their grip on reality by pandering to celebrities and producing $3,000 sweatshirts. “We don’t care what designers are doing because it doesn’t apply to us,” Hahn explained.

As fashion designers lost their influence over consumers, fast fashion swooped in. Hahn reported that from 1999 to 2009, the volume of textile trash rose by 40 percent, partly due to the rise of inexpensive fashion.

Now, fashion is moving toward vintage, upcycling, and classic styles—a sign of a weak fashion cycle, possibly—but it is also an opportunity to reconsider the true meaning of garbage. “I believe in garbage because it will be the thing that helps us produce more wisely,” Hahn said. “People want more. They want and need more stuff. We have to be there to help circulate that stuff.”

Bossa General Manager Sedef Uncu Aki agreed, saying, “Don’t think of waste as an unwanted burden, look at it as a resource.” As the population grows and the middle class expands, Uncu Aki reported that the world will encounter even greater waste generation. “Steps need to be taken to make our linear economy, that takes, makes and disposes, into one that is more circular,” she said.

“Reuse always needs to come before recycling,” said Paul Dietzsch Doertenbach, head of marketing and sales for I:Collect, a retail take-back system for unwanted clothing and footwear. The company is pushing for closed loop recycling, like the procedure it has in place with H&M. The retailer incentivizes consumers to bring unwanted denim products to their stores, I:Collect sorts items manually based on over 300 points of criteria and then sells remnants back to spinners for H&M.

Doertenbach reported that just 15 percent of unwanted textiles in the U.S. are collected. In comparison, 75 percent of unwanted textiles are collected in Germany. Part of the struggle, he says, is logistic costs. “When we started in 2010, our services were available to all stores, small or large, but logistic prices are volatile and go up and down. When we had contracts with small stores, we had to increase logistic costs and pay more, and it broke down our whole business model,” Doertenbach explained.

Today, I:Collect works with small-scale stores on a country-by-country basis. Germany is possible, but France is still too expensive. “That’s just one of the challenges we need to get our heads around. We’re always talking to UPS and DHL to get them to share our mindset,” he continued.

Cost is the crick in most sustainable efforts. Brent Crossland, Bayer CropScience head of fiber development for cotton and seeds, considers sustainability to be a byproduct of the extreme pressures cotton farmers are under to stay in business—it isn’t the priority.

“For me, it’s more about survival than sustainability… Cotton farmers can’t control their price, but they can control their input costs, and they are adopting new technologies to create a whole lot out of a little. Our farmers don’t recreationally spray with pesticides, they manage their input costs to the penny, so by definition they are becoming more sustainable, and those who are not are going out of business,” Crossland explained.

Discussions about reducing garbage naturally led to talk about transparency and the discrepancies between what one mill to the next considers to be sustainable practices.

Alberto De Conti, Garmon chief marketing officer, summed it up best when he said that when it comes to sustainability in the denim industry, the sector doesn’t have a dominate point of view. He quipped, “We just have a lot of points of view.”

Last year Garmon placed a major emphasis on the launch of new responsible chemicals created for the denim market. One year in, De Conti says sales are not even in the double-digits compared to rest of its chemicals. “As a chemical company, we can’t follow every brand’s sustainable approach. Everyone has their own approach that they promote and believe to be the best,” he explained.

Miguel Sanchez, Archroma’s global head of business for denim and casualwear, said the use of non-hazardous chemicals and the adaptation of better application processes like lasers are solutions the industry collectively needs to agree upon. “If we don’t change the way we dye denim, my grandchildren will be wearing something else,” he warned. “And I want them to be wearing denim.”

Some might consider Greenpeace’s Detox campaign to be the dominant voice, but Sanchez pointed out that too many brands don’t have total control of what they are manufacturing. “They don’t know what their suppliers are doing. First you should have to prove that you can trace back. You can only sign something like this once you have true transparency,” he said.

Prym General Director Marco Corti said the trims company was approached by an Italian company that was in talks with Greenpeace, “So we went through the list of chemical restrictions, and we realized the ‘roadmap to zero’ approach extended to all materials… Its completely illogical.”

He continued, “Dominate in this case means pressure because Greenpeace can raise funds based on the amount of media attention they receive, but it isn’t consistent in [developing] an ethical and sustainable business approach.”

Sanchez says there’s a gap between what brands are doing and what end consumers know. “No one on the brand side has been telling them what it takes to produce garments—brands want a clean face. They have their documents and papers, but for whatever reason they don’t want to pass that information along to their consumers,” he added.

Robert Antoshak, Olah Inc. managing director and supervisor of the company’s global cotton and marketing program, says the lack of education of consumers has worked to the advantage of some retailers and components like synthetics.

For example, Townsend quoted a figure from a 2015 CSR Asia article that read, “65 million tonnes of cotton fiber fills landfills per year.” Townsend said, “That’s impossible, we don’t create that much cotton to begin with.”

On the flip side, Antoshak said the cotton industry needs to be more focused and aggressive with its message to consumers, and it hasn’t in the last 20 to 25 years. “This generation doesn’t have a nasty perspective like we do on synthetics, and that is all the more reason for cotton to remind them of its history and how sustainable it can be, especially for small brands to distinguish themselves in a crowded market,” he explained.

Olah said very few companies in the denim industry are interested in being transparent. However, Artistic Milliners Director of Sales and R&D Omer Ahmed said Millennial consumers are asking for more information. He expects brands will be forced to pull back the curtain. “In the next 10 to 15 years I feel that all brands will be required to show their carbon footprint on their websites. Eventually you will have a carbon score for every garment that’s made,” he said.

The industry can’t move forward without investment. Olah pointed out there are two groups of people, “Those who adopt a technology that they like and tie their wagon onto it, and companies that truly transform the way things are done.” He said it’s that second group of companies that are crucial and are the ones the industry cannot live without.

Lenzing has tried to use byproducts in a positive way, despite the initial costs to set up such programs. For example, the beech tree wood that Lenzing uses in it production process contains a natural product called xylose which it sells to Danisco, a food ingredients division of DuPont. The product is converted into xylitol, a sugar alcohol used as a sweetener for chewing gum and toothpaste.

“These are nice little profits for the company, but it takes a lot of investment. In the ’80s and ’90s, there were question marks about whether they should invest,” said Michael Kininmonth, Lenzing project manager.

For the future, Kininmonth says Lenzing has a broader vision for how it might reuse waste. “We currently use cellulose from trees but in theory we can use any cellulose material. There’s a huge amount of cellulose product available,” he said.

One idea is to spin fibers from waste cotton. Kininmonth continued, “Ideally, this is a business model for when the brand/retailer is the supplier, and we convert their waste into new fiber and then it cycles back into their supply chain. That’s the vision, it is just stepping stones, but we’re starting.”