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JUST Approved: 5 Ethical Denim Brands to Buy

Ethical fashion organization Project JUST launched its first guide of JUST Approved denim brands. From a list of over 111 user submissions, an expert committee selected Kings of Indigo, Mud Jeans, Nudie Jeans and Patagonia; Project JUST also awarded Levi’s an honorable mention.

The JUST Approved program was launched to help shoppers identify the best labels for style, quality, ethics and sustainability. Since Project JUST launched in December, the team has been adding new brands to a directory every week.

Natalie Grillon, Project JUST co-CEO, said that she realized that publishing all the information might turn people away from some of their favorite brands. She commented, “We can’t expect shoppers to change their behavior if they don’t have alternatives.” JUST Approved was put in place to help shoppers find those alternatives.

The selection process for the JUST Approved brands was based on three categories: the overall research criteria for all apparel categories, the denim context and innovation. The initial criteria span labor conditions and management. The denim specific factors included water consumption and pollution, sandblasting and use of organic or recycled cotton. Finally, issues like affordability, accessibility, style and fit were the final category.

One of the major issues the Project JUST team encountered was finding information about brands; many of them were simply not transparent enough. Shahd Alshehail, co-CEO, explained that some brands might claim terms like fair trade but lack certifications and audit reports.

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Other concerns were whether the brands fit in terms of style and aesthetics and whether their product was accessible at retail.

The panel of experts evaluating the brands included Bob Bland, CEO of Manufacture NY; Alden Wicker, founder and editor-in-chief of Ecocult; Emma McClendon, assistant curator of costume at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology; and two members from the JUST team, Natalie Grillon, co­-CEO, and Megan O’Malley, lead researcher.

Alshehail and Grillon shared the aspects of the research process by which they had been most surprised in a call following the list’s release. Alshehail pointed to the amount of water used in denim: 2,900 gallons of water are used per pair of jeans, which is the amount of water consumed by one person over the course of 15 years, and a lot of that water is not treated properly. Grillon pointed to sandblasting, which produces silica in the process and has been implicated in cancer cases in workers.

The CEOs also shared the parts of the process that had most impressed them. Alshehail said she had been interested in the way brands had rethought the business model. For example, Mud Jeans has a leasing program, allowing customers to pay a monthly fee rather than buying the brand’s jeans outright. Other companies have been exploring concepts like upcycling and repairing jeans.

Grillon referred to Patagonia, which instead of using indigo dyes, is using their own dye system that consumes even less water and CO2 than natural indigo.

Denim was the first category released from JUST Approved and will be followed by a second undecided category in July. Alshehail and Grillon said that the long-term goal of the program is to have their seal of approval available where customers shop online and in-stores.