Though the definition of sustainability has always been up for debate, the COVID-19 crisis has forced denim experts to reconsider the true meaning and value of sustainable denim. What many have found is that sustainability’s benefits have stretched far beyond environmental and societal, and become the indicator of whether a business will fail or succeed. It’s no longer nice for a company to be sustainable—it’s essential. And consumers are taking note.
On the business side, the pandemic exposed areas in which companies could shorten and optimize their supply chains, and highlighted the benefits of local, slow production. On the consumer side, it demonstrated the true value of purchasing fewer, but better, items.
As a result, many in the industry are using this time to reexamine their processes, set new sustainability goals and prepare for a post-pandemic consumer who will shape the future of fashion. Here, experts share how COVID-19 changed their perception of sustainability in the denim industry.
Amy Leverton, founder and owner, Denim Dudes
I have noticed many changes in my outlook and perspective, from physical to philosophical. My life has gone back to a version of me as a teenager; a period in my life when I created for the pleasure of it, enjoyed nature on a more regular basis and was a more adventurous and creative person because I had the time to be. Now that the rug has been pulled from under us and we can no longer rely on the things that we thought we had to do, I am realizing that I could have stopped them at any time.
This isn’t to say that I have figured out a new plan or way of life for myself post-COVID-19, but I am assessing all these things and figuring out what I would like my denim future to look like. I will certainly be making changes. My goal is to align with people, companies and processes that I truly believe in, support and nurture talent that I feel inspired by, and say no more often.
Andrew Olah, founder, Kingpins Show, Transformers Foundation
I really don’t see how a pandemic could possibly change my perception. The fact is that the world has shut down and obviously, we have less waste and our CO2 footprint has been reduced.
Nothing has changed in our plans or mind. We have always believed in sustainable manufacturing and farming. In 2020, we launched Transformers Foundation 2020 in order to promote education to consumers and businesses about how to implement sustainable practices, and what is real change and what is greenwashing.
Haya Iqbal Ahmed, director, Artistic Fabric Mills
In general, COVID-19 has forced us to reflect on the impact that industries have had on the environment. It is no coincidence that after just a few weeks of lockdown, several countries experienced improved air quality and witnessed the ecosystem healing. I believe that, for the denim industry, this is a sobering thought that should push us to authentically improve our practices if we want the planet to not only exist, but thrive for future generations. This means that, along with using sustainable fibers and reducing water and energy consumption and the use of harmful chemicals, we must also scale sustainably and reduce the waste generated by our industry.
This is an opportunity to reset, and at Artistic Fabric Mills, we have defined three goals that we believe need immediate action. The first is to tackle the issue of excess inventory. We are finding ways to work with our brand partners to reduce, reuse and recycle deadstock, surplus production and leftover inventory. Second, reduce our dependency on water- and energy-thirsty crops, like virgin cotton, by switching to alternative options such as hemp, recycled cotton, Tencel and biodegradable fibers, and focus on protective finishes to offer value. And third, scale up sustainably by investing in the most sustainable technology available today.
Green purchasing, water recycling, automated and eco-friendly machinery are key areas of investment for us moving forward. It’s hard to say what the consumer’s mindset will be in the aftermath of COVID-19, but we’re committed to doing our part to better educate the consumer on the merits of sustainable choices and strengthen our circular mission by closing the loop on our manufacturing process.
Maurice Malone, owner and designer, Williamsburg Garment Company, Inc. and Maurice Malone
COVID-19 created a new sales category. Adding mask production was a no-brainer for brands that could produce domestically, as imports could be seized. Small fabric scraps, unnecessary samples and styles could be cut up and repurposed as stylish masks.
I have always thought that it is important to manufacture essential products here at home. I don’t think it’s smart for the U.S. manufacturers of technology, healthcare, or the military industries to be so reliant on outsourced supply chains, and COVID-19 has shown us that. I believe COVID-19 will make many companies look to diversify their supply chains.
Suzanne Silverstein, president, 7 For All Mankind
COVID-19 has not changed the way we see sustainability, but may have accelerated it for other organizations. We recently completed a nine-month intensive review of our materials, manufacturing and labor practices and developed a framework of measurable criteria in which to guide us to more sustainable materials and production processes.
This top-to-bottom review of not only our product but our footprint from a company office, distribution and store fleet led us to the promise that by 2023, 80 percent of our products would have sustainable properties. That promise is not something we take lightly, and we are transparently sharing the approach and progress of our Sustainable For All Mankind platform through a robust section on our website.
Katrin Ley, managing director, Fashion for Good
Innovation, particularly in challenging times, has proven its relevance time and again to reinvigorate business as usual to achieve organizational objectives. We’re presented with an opportunity to reevaluate practices and better plan, streamline and coordinate our efforts to maintain the momentum we have achieved and to ensure our efforts remain on track once we are on the other side of this.
COVID-19 has shown the importance of embedding innovation and sustainability within the organization to help weather times of challenge. It’s an issue that every industry is facing and highlights the need for collaboration throughout the supply chain to drive the implementation of new innovations.
Andrea Venier, managing director, Officina+39
It will depend a lot on whether the COVID-19 is impacting each region, and by the degree of maturity with respect to sustainability of each region. For a certain period, people will generally have less money to spend on clothing. I think people will be more careful about spending their money on buying products of superior quality. We have to go back to high quality products like in the ’80s and part of the ’90s. This is for me the only future.
Brands will have to attract consumers again, but also with beautiful products. Fashion must be beautiful. It must generate emotions. To do that, brands will have to recover consumer confidence by offering transparent, sustainable, durable and quality products. People will probably buy less, but they will be willing to spend more on a better product.
Alice Tonello, R&D and marketing director, Tonello
Unfortunately, the word sustainability has sometimes been overused as a marketing tool, and not as a real commitment.
Even before COVID-19, we had been carrying out an internal process involving and giving value to our people, those who design and build our technologies, those who use them to concretely wash and finish garments, and to all the people that are wearing the garments made with Tonello technologies. The sensitivity toward people in general is something we think consumers are increasingly developing, and that’s why we hope this consciousness toward a truly responsible product can help them make the right choice.
Enrique Silla, founder, Jeanologia
It’s time to act. All industry stakeholders need to come together to transform the textile industry. Getting started on the road to sustainability helps create a virtuous circle, and it is the first step to achieving the detoxification and dehydration of the textile industry.
After COVID-19, eco-sustainable production will become obligatory. Only the companies that have put people and planet before profits, and have a purpose, will be able to survive. Sustainability and sanitization will be the keys for the fast recovery of our industry. Now we need to gain the consumers’ trust through sanitization and through sustainability.
Digitization is also a necessity—from digital design and sourcing to digital showrooms. These are already there, but we need to accelerate and connect designers with wash developers digitally.
Alberto De Conti, head of fashion division, Rudolf Group
The unexpected has happened. Fashion, luxury labels and denim manufacturers use their facilities for coronavirus relief. Take the Armani group as an example, which announced that all of its Italian production plants switched to manufacturing of single-use medical overalls. And in this effort to protect health care workers, new knowledge is acquired, new skills are being learned and a new market is potentially being discovered in the process. And that is fashionable protective equipment for ordinary people who, because of their jobs, find themselves thrown in the fray, risking their own health to keep their communities moving.
Drivers, riders, supermarket staff and others are not necessarily equipped with professional protection. They might not even want to wear professional gear, as they still want to be able to express their own personality through their clothing. Technology and science are supporting this process to get to denim that looks the part and is truly protective.
Berke Aydemir, global technical sales and marketing manager, Naveena Denim Mills
If there is one positive thing about this crisis, it is that it has really shown everyone how interconnected we are and how we should treat nature, others around us and, finally, ourselves, with kindness. It has increased awareness about sustainability in its broader understanding encompassing economic, environmental and societal issues.
For the fashion industry, in particular, this means that fast-fashion will have to be redefined and that brands will increasingly focus on production processes that will not fill the landfills. On the consumer side, we anticipate that remote working will continue to be a part of our lives in the post-COVID-19 world. Accordingly, the demand for comfortable and functionable fabrics will be on the rise.
On the other hand, after the much expected “revenge shopping” period, spending power will probably decrease rapidly in the short to medium term, meaning that consumers will be more likely to spend on long-lasting, season-less and basic pieces.
Read more from these denim experts in Rivet’s latest denim sustainability report, New Wave. Download the report here.