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Denim Insiders Share What It Takes to Make ‘Sustainable’ Attainable

A meeting of the minds took place at Artisan Cloth Inc. and Tencel’s denim-focused Innovation Celebration in downtown Los Angeles last week.

Brands, mills and product developers from around the industry convened to discuss sustainable strides being made in the denim world at large. While there is no shortage of innovative ideas cropping up across the industry, it now falls to brands and their partners to commit to the widespread adoption of proven sustainable techniques.

They must also provide both transparency for the consumer, experts said. Shoppers are gunning for a more environmentally stable future and pushing brands to show their work instead of just delivering answers and demanding trust.

Juan Manuel Gomez of Officina+39, which creates chemicals and dyestuffs for the apparel and denim industries, said that his company has coined the term, “trustainability” to describe the attitude needed to solve the industry’s issues and bring consumers into the fold.

“It’s a mix between the words trust, transparency and sustainability,” he explained.

Gomez argued during a panel discussion that the apparel industry as a whole is overusing the word sustainability, and that taking steps toward a more environmentally friendly output is not enough to truly change consumers’ attitudes about why they should buy higher priced, better-for-the-world products.

Shoppers are looking for “true transparency and an honest background,” he said, and Officina+39 is looking to lead the charge in pressing for more openness around process and supply chain. “We want to involve all of our partners and friends in bringing more value to the word ‘trustainability,’” he said.

The company’s Recycrom dyestuff range is made from recycled clothing, fibrous material and textile scraps that are reprocessed into colored powder.

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“In terms of the circular economy, we’re trying to connect more with small companies, brands and universities and trying to support them,” Gomez said. “Our industry doesn’t have too much information in terms of education.”

Allison Charalambous, senior manager of sustainability and social responsibility at Lucky Brand, told Sourcing Journal that she believes the barrier to scaling sustainable solutions and increasing positive impact is cost.

The brand’s consumers are price conscious, she said, and would be unwilling to take on a sustainability tax.

“In order for mainstream customers to widely adopt that [sustainable solutions] in apparel, not just luxury consumers, it should be cost neutral,” she said. “For example, while only some people can buy Teslas, others have realized buying a Prius is cost effective because of the savings on gas.

“Home solar panels are now more common because the economics behind installation and long-term savings makes them a wise investment, not a luxury,” Charalambous added. “The same should be for apparel.”

As the resources used to produce apparel—like fibers, water and electricity—become more expensive, mills and factories must innovate to cut down on waste and maintain unit cost.

“The innovation is not there yet, but apparel using post-consumer recycled materials—a widely available feedstock—would reduce the costs and resources used to grow and produce virgin materials, and also reduce landfill waste,” she said. “But again, a cost-conscious consumer will only buy-in if it is cost neutral.”

According to luxury brand Citizens of Humanity, the onus is on brands to communicate the benefits of their environmental efforts. Dana Kelly, the brand’s fabric manager, believes that the brand’s customers are more willing to shell out for sustainability than others.

“I think our customers are willing to pay a little bit more for a sustainable product because there’s a growing customer base that cares about responsibly made goods,” she said. “As a vertical company that’s able to manufacture out of L.A., showing a local supply chain only adds to the value of an expensive pair of jeans and the material that’s in it.”

Several factors contribute to a jean’s MSRP, she said, including sourcing fabrics from responsible suppliers, the maintenance of safe and clean working environments, and paying fair wages for the design, crafting, sewing and washing done by trade professionals.

In communicating the convoluted nature of a supply chain to consumers, brands can increase their perceived value and help shoppers understand the factors that contribute to a product’s price tag.

“Value furthers the pursuit of more value,” Kelly said. “When you purchase an expensive item, you’re more inclined to take good care of it. It becomes a loved piece—you wear it until it needs to be repaired or mended, which in turn returns more value to that item.”

If a shopper buys a $25 jean, by contrast, they’re more likely to discard it and buy another when it “blows out or needs to be repaired.”

“There’s no real sense of value in that cheaper item,” she added.

But fast fashion isn’t going away just yet, and many brands will need more affordable solutions in order to adopt innovative processes, she said.

“We hope in the years to come that sourcing responsible materials will become more cost neutral and eventually affordable to the masses,” Kelly said.