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DL1961 CEO Says ‘People Are Ready to Listen’ to Sustainability Message

The Sustainable Fashion Forum, produced by Fashiondex and LA Textile, took place in Los Angeles on Thursday, bringing together the apparel industry’s leading designers, manufacturers and logistics providers who are innovating for change.

In a panel discussion about responsible fashion, Zahra Ahmed, CEO of DL1961, took the stage to expound upon the brand’s efforts to bring sustainability to one of apparel’s most notorious categories: denim.

DL1961 began as a family business, founded by Ahmed’s parents a decade ago. She was thrust into the role of CEO in June, and has doubled down on the brand’s efforts to become truly impact-free.

Ahmed explained that denim is a “global process” for most brands. Fabric and components are sourced from far and wide, then manufactured in yet another location—only to be transported across the globe for sale.

For DL1961, which is sold at retail stalwarts like Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s and recently, Stitch Fix, the process is vertical, Ahmed said. “From start to finish—from spinning fibers into yarn, to design—we’re doing that in house.”

Ahmed said her parents launched the brand with just one core fabric 10 years ago, and they never intended for DL1961 to become synonymous with sustainability. But as they learned more about the denim manufacturing process, they simply wanted to right the wrongs that have long plagued the industry.

Charting a new environmental course involved myriad changes to the traditional supply chain. From new fabric formulations to finishing techniques, chemical testing and water waste management measures, the brand refuses to shy away from innovation—and when DL1961 can’t create the solution itself, it brings in partners who can.

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Ahmed said that Jeanologia’s environmental impact tracking software has been a game changer for DL1961, helping the brand to identify waste-making steps in its supply chain and prompting improvement.

While the average jean is produced using 1,500 gallons of water between washing and finishing techniques used to create the fabric’s signature look and feel, DL1961 has perfected a process that uses less than 10 gallons per pair, Ahmed said.

Jeanologia’s Ozone Eco G2 machines allow the brand to create wash variations without water, while laser machines create denim’s signature character free of harsh chemical abrasives.

Ahmed is relentless about staying in the know about the industry’s latest innovations, explaining, “What is sustainable today won’t be sustainable tomorrow.”

There’s no room for complacency, she said, and “there’s always room to improve.”

Still, the consumer is the ultimate driver behind retail’s (hopefully) sustainable future. And improvements to the ultra-complicated denim supply chain can prove a tough concept to sell with shoppers.

“When we first started out, we seemed too serious, too technical,” Ahmed admitted. “It took a long time for people to want to get on board and have the conversation.”

Now, in the midst of worldwide panic surrounding climate change, “People are ready to listen.”

The rise of the direct-to-consumer model has given many brands with an environmental message a platform to inspire—as well as complete control over their messaging. But for DL1961, which does most of its business through wholesale channels, the need to present a strong and consistent message at retail takes some doing.

“It comes down to partnership,” Ahmed said, citing Bloomingdale’s as a recent example of a strong collaborative effort between brand and retailer.

In April, to celebrate Earth Month the department store allowed DL1961 to build out an in-store installation, showcasing its different sustainability processes on a small scale. An educational video and denim scraps from the factory were brought in to illustrate the company’s supply chain.

That same month, DL1961 worked with distribution partner Stitch Fix on a campaign to educate consumers about sustainability through targeted messaging to users and on-site information about the brand and its initiatives.

“Now all of these retailers have destinations on their websites for people to explore more, because people are asking more,” she said.

Plus, store associates are being trained not just about product specs, but the brand’s environmental impact.

“Almost all of our department store partners are getting product knowledge—whether that’s an in-person seminar, or a digital packet that has key points about the brand and what our sustainability practices look like,” Ahmed said.

It’s incumbent upon the brand to provide these resources, she added, because every interaction is an opportunity to educate.

“We have a wealth of information, and they are asking for it,” she said. “It’s all about packaging things in a way that works for all our channels.”