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What’s Next On Denim Brands’ Sustainability Bucket Lists

2020 is shaping up to be a pivotal year, and not just because of the run-up to the U.S. presidential elections.

As the new decade rolls out, so too will the first tranche of sustainability commitments by businesses seeking to burnish their reputations as responsible stewards of industry. For denim brands like G-Star Raw and Levi’s, 2020 also marks the culmination of Greenpeace’s years-long Detox My Fashion campaign, which challenged more than 80 apparel brands, retailers and suppliers—representing 15 percent of global fashion production—to eliminate hazardous chemicals such as per- and polyfluorinated chemicals from their supply chains.

“2020 is a very important year for us,” a G-Star spokesperson told Rivet. The Detox commitment aside, the Dutch denim firm has also pledged to use only 100 percent sustainably sourced cotton, such as Better Cotton Initiative cotton, organic cotton and recycled cotton, by the end of next year. Of its non-cotton components, the company promises a target of 90 percent.

G-Star doesn’t have numbers for 2018 yet, but in 2017, the company says it employed 57.3 percent sustainable materials and 69.8 percent sustainable cotton. “We’re confident about our progress toward achieving our 2020 goals,” the spokesperson said.

A watershed moment for G-Star came in 2018 when it launched what it billed as its most sustainable jeans ever. As part of the process, the brand developed the world’s first denim fabric to be certified Gold by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute’s rigorous standards, which take into account factors like material health and reutilization, renewable energy, water stewardship and social fairness. Composed of 100 percent organic cotton, the jeans were dyed with 70 percent fewer chemicals, used no salts and are 98 percent recyclable at the end of their life.

Greater traceability is also in the cards for G-Star, which publicly disclosed its manufacturers in 2014. Today, each garment on its website is accompanied by a “Where is It Made?” button that discloses not just its country of origin but also the name and address of the originating factory, any special programs or certifications that distinguish the facility and the number and gender breakdown of its workers. “Eventually, it’s our ambition to share our impact and provide full traceability for all of our products,” the spokesperson said.

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Levi’s, another Greenpeace Detox member, says it met its first 2020 goal—a 25 percent reduction of emissions in owned-and-operated facilities—in 2017, three years ahead of schedule. So, it set “far more ambitious and far-reaching” climate goals for 2025, said Michael Kobori, Levi’s vice president of sustainability.

By 2025, the brand aims to slash its carbon emissions by 90 percent and use 100 percent renewable energy in all owned-and-operated facilities. It also vows to reduce carbon emissions across its global supply chain by 40 percent, which is proving both a challenge and opportunity because it requires directing so many moving parts.

“That’s forced us to get creative and look for partners who can help us make the necessary changes,” Kobori said, singling out Levi’s partnership with the International Finance Corporation-led Partnership for Cleaner Textiles (PaCT) as an example. A pilot program based on the PaCT methodology, for instance, led to a greenhouse-gas reduction of nearly 20 percent for participating suppliers and a collective savings of more than $1 million. “We therefore recently announced that we’re expanding this program to our 42 top suppliers and mills, because it works, because it’s necessary, and because it’s good business,” he added.

Denim brands share their sustainable goals for 2020 and beyond.
Levi’s Courtesy

Another 2020 goal Levi’s already hit involves worker well-being, specifically guidance and support on financial literacy and empowerment, individual and family health and equality.

“Our goal had been to reach 200,000 workers in our supply chain through these programs by 2020, but we reached the goal earlier this summer, when we topped 200,000 workers across 17 countries and 105 factories,” Kobori said. Today, more than 65 percent of Levi’s products are made in factories that have implemented those programs, and that number will increase to 80 percent by 2020.

Levi’s is also working on its goal to make 80 percent of Levi’s products using its Water<Less technology, which helps shrink water use in the finishing process by up to 96 percent. Thanks to the open-source methodology, the brand has saved 3 billion liters of the wet stuff to date. “We had reached 67 percent by the end of 2019,” Kobori said.

Chemistry creators

For Wrangler, setting “globally relevant goals” reflecting its most material issues—cotton, water, energy and chemistry—was crucial, according to Roian Atwood, the director of sustainability. “We are proud that the goals are ambitious and impactful, in that our work toward them will actually have a positive impact on our industry and the world,” he said.

By 2020, Wrangler plans to use 100 percent “preferred chemistry” throughout its supply chain and conserve 5.5 billion liters of water. Five years after that, it wants to source only sustainable cotton and power all owned-and-operated facilities with 100 percent renewable energy. But owning its own manufacturing—a rarity in the business—affords it with “opportunities and sometimes concerns” that other denim brands may not have to deal with, according to Atwood. “Powering all of our owned-and-operated buildings with renewable energy, for example, expands beyond just our offices and stores,” Atwood said. “We have to think about how to implement at our manufacturing facilities and distribution centers as well.”

Still, Wrangler is “well on [its] way” to achieving its chemistry and water goals, he said, adding, “I expect we’ll be making an announcement on at least one of our 2020 goals this year.”

It’s making progress on the renewable energy front at a decent clip, too, though it’s not about to rest on its laurels. “As those goals sunset, we’ll be announcing new goals that will push our teams and supply chain partners even further toward sustainability and responsibility,” Atwood said.

Collection agency

2020 might also be a banner year for Sweden’s Nudie Jeans, whose vision is to become the world’s most sustainable denim company. “We want to be able to sleep well at night,” said Kevin Gelsi, Nudie’s sustainability coordinator.

Many of its goals are enshrined as part of the Global Fashion Agenda’s 2020 Circular Fashion Commitment, which counts 90 brands and retailers, collectively representing 12.5 percent of the global fashion market, among its signatories. By 2020, Nudie Jeans says it will increase the number of own-brand jeans it takes back by 20 percent and the number of own-brand secondhand jeans it sells by 30 percent globally. That same year, at least one style in its collection will comprise post-consumer recycled Nudie Jeans from its garment-collection scheme. All targets are at their midway point and just require one final sprint, Gelsi noted.

“These goals are set with the base year 2017 and we see no issues reaching them,” said sustainability manager Eliina Brinkberg. “We have even raised the numbers for the targets of collected and sold secondhand during 2018 when we realized that the first targets were set too low.”

Nudie Jeans started early with its sustainability commitments. In 2012, the company announced it was using only 100 percent organic cotton in all its denim. And it continues to aim high. By 2025, the company wants to be carbon neutral along its entire supply chain, from raw materials to finished product.

“We have just started this work and therefore have not yet been able to set absolute targets or Science Based Targets for decreasing our emissions,” Brinkberg said. “This is something we hope to be able to do at the end of next year.” To that end, Nudie Jeans has joined the nascent Swedish Textile Initiative for Climate Action. “We are hoping that our tight supply chain and engaged and modern suppliers will give us an easier road toward reaching the goals,” she added. “And we hope to set the goals with a reasonable but still quite short timeline.”

Scaling sustainability

As a company with many auxiliary branches—Gap, Banana Republic, Athleta and Old Navy among them—Gap Inc.’s roadmap is more fragmented, meaning that while the parent company has goals that trickle down to all brands, the brands themselves may harbor targets that are exclusive to them. Case in point? Gap Inc. pledged to source 100 percent of its cotton, across the enterprise, from more sustainable sources by 2025. The Gap brand moved the goal posts, however, up to 2021. For Banana Republic, the cutoff is 2023 and for Old Navy, it’s 2022. As a whole, Gap Inc. is roughly 40 percent of the way there, estimates Melissa Fifield, the company’s senior director of sustainable innovation.

Denim brands share their sustainable goals for 2020 and beyond.
Old Navy Courtesy

One of its universal goals is also one of its most ambitious ones: conserving a total of 10 billion liters of water by the end of 2020. To date, Gap Inc. has saved 5.7 billion liters, so “we are absolutely on track,” Fifield said. “And that covers everything from fabric creation to garment finishing.”

Denim, she added, is important to all its brands. “We set goals related to our products in key areas where we know that we have the most opportunity to drive change,” Fifield said. “And so how that shows up for denim in particular is really focused on water and cotton.”

Energy-wise, Gap Inc. gave one of its 2020 goals—reducing Scope 1 and 2 greenhouse-gas emissions for owned-and-operated facilities by 50 percent—a shot in the arm in August when it signed a 90-megawatt virtual power purchase agreement for a wind project with Enel Green Power North America. One of the largest offsite renewable energy contracts by an apparel retailer, the partnership will generate enough wind energy to power the equivalent of more than 1,500 Gap Inc. retail stores, the company noted in a statement. By 2030, Gap Inc. says it will reach 100 percent renewable energy across all owned-and-operated facilities globally.

“We want to have as limited of an impact on the environment as possible,” Fifield said.

This story appears in the latest issue of Rivet. Read more here