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Why the Denim Sustainability Conversation Starts with Traceability

Denim’s roots may be steeped in tradition, but the industry as a whole must seek out alternative methods to manufacturing and product development if it wants to progress a responsible direction. Luckily, denim manufacturers across the world are taking steps to make responsibility a reality.

When it comes to delivering sustainability in the denim supply chain effectively, transparency is top of mind for many stakeholders. All parties need to know where a product originates to carry out any true sustainability goals they are hoping to scale. But in order to achieve true transparency, according to New Wave, Rivet’s 2020 Denim Sustainability Report, the conversations begin with traceable fibers.

Upon launching Refibra in 2017, Lenzing introduced a new identification system that made it possible to identify the Refibra fiber in a finished textile. This information can be verified at four global testing labs Lenzing uses for fabric certification. All certified fabrics are registered in Lenzing’s e-branding database where retailers can apply for a license to use the Refibra brand name.

Traceable technology company FibreTrace is another firm that is dedicated to assisting supply chain partners by providing real-time verifiable insight designed to allow for a single, unified view of where a product lies in the chain.

“We can display scientific data surrounding raw fibers and create a unique passport of the item to be read and tracked at every stage of the supply chain from farm to shelf and beyond,” Danielle Statham, FibreTrace director, said in the report.

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The system uses patented nanotechnology particles embedded in cellulose fibers, which can be mixed into any natural or man-made fiber at the start of the production process. The particles are instantly readable using handheld scanners at all stages of the chain, so users can verify where the fabric has been.

Hemp becomes an all-purpose alternative

More actors in the supply chain are pivoting to hemp as a sustainable alternative for its anti-flammable, biodegradable and regenerative properties. For example, Turkish denim manufacturing firm Orta created a Gen H concept, a hemp-blended cotton within its Denimimicry collection that includes 20 percent hemp warp and 20 percent recycled cotton weft.

“We believe it is time to rethink value for today’s eco-modern world. It’s not about how much it costs,” said Zennure Danisman, Orta’s marketing and washing manager. “The real question should be, ‘What is the cost to the denim industry if we lose the next generation of conscious-forward consumers by only valuing price?’ But haps the most important question is ‘What is the value of denim to you?’”

Other manufacturers such as Naveena Denim, Foison, Artistic Milliners and Rajby are putting their own spin on cottonized hemp in anticipation of the plant’s growing popularity. In fact, the industrial hemp market could grow from $4.6 billion in 2019 to $26.6 billion by 2025, according to MarketsandMarkets data cited in the report.

Upcycling gains popularity

Beyond using new, sustainable fabrics, more consumers, designers and retailers alike are discovering the upside of upcycling denim. A May report from fashion search engine Tagwalk reported that fully sustainable and upcycled looks were featured 100 percent more often in Fall/Winter 20-21 collections than they were in Fall/Winter 19-20 collections.

For example, Urban Outfitters and its Urban Renewal initiative repurposes and reinvents sustainably sourced vintage pieces. Garments are either sold in their original state, fashioned out of deadstock materials or remade into pieces designed to resonate with current styles. The line ranges from overdyed vintage Levi’s 50 jeans and tie-dye tees to patchwork denim throw pillows.

But like anything else related to sustainability, upcycling denim isn’t the easiest alternative to commit to. Greg Lauren, the Los Angeles-based designer and nephew of Ralph Lauren, as well as an outspoken proponent of upcycled denim design, noted in the report that it requires manpower and takes a company (and owner) that wants to do it in order for the process to work.

“Once you have the vision, then you have to deconstruct it, you have to respect it, you have to take it apart in order to rebuild something,” Lauren said. “What we’ve learned through trial and error is how to bring an operational approach to the artisanal production of pieces that use repurposed fabrics that are all different.”

Marketing and event strategies play a factor, too

For denim companies to truly commit to these kinds of sustainability strategies, it has to be across the board—not just in selecting raw materials or developing the products. This means bringing the sustainability mindset to marketing and event strategies as well, especially as more influencers are using often wasteful tactics such as unboxing videos or brands decide they want to use gifting as part of their strategies. In the case of the latter, gifting has become less sustainable as more companies send out products in mass quantities to potential shoppers even if there’s a chance the product will never be used or thrown away.

Ani Wells, the founder of Simply Suzette, an online platform designed to connect denim industry players and consumers, urged companies to strongly consider their collaborations and who they “gift” products to.

“I personally have never considered myself an influencer, but I do get offered product from time to time,” Wells said in the report. “Most of the time I decline, as it is not something I need. But the ones I accept I believe will help me educate my followers and actually allow me to experience the product/brand firsthand before I put my full support behind it.”

Learn more about the report findings, the ways top denim execs are reexamining their denim production processes, as well as possible solutions that could move the denim industry in a more sustainable, responsible direction. Download Rivet’s 2020 Denim Sustainability Report here.