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Does the Sustainable Denim Movement Mean the End of the Billion Dollar Brand?

Sustainability is great for the environment, but what does it mean for business?

In a panel at Project Las Vegas’ Denim Room, Denim Dudes owner Amy Leverton, Atelier & Repairs co-founder Maurizio Donadi and Rivet president and founder Edward Hertzman discussed the ways in which denim brands can remain both profitable and sustainable—or if it’s even possible.

It’s no secret that implementing more responsible processes throughout the denim supply chain is a big investment. Responsible farming techniques, water-saving technologies and energy-efficient strategies can challenge conservative budgets and push out some of the smaller brands that simply can’t afford it.

But that doesn’t mean smaller denim brands are destined for failure. In fact, this opens up an opportunity for collaboration, according to Donadi, who suggested that larger corporations finance smaller brands looking to make a difference.

“A company with larger profits would hopefully finance smaller projects,” he said. “That’s a commitment that a premium brand should make so we can have a better society tomorrow.”

On the other hand, the sustainable denim movement may actually be in favor of smaller brands, as they’re innately more eco-friendly than their larger competitors.

Producing at scale no longer provides a brand with a competitive edge, as Gen Z consumers buy less and value authenticity. Gen Z’s distaste for mass production—coupled with their dedication to sustainability—makes them a champion of unique pieces. Whether they’re garments made in small batches (think: limited-edition drops) or vintage pieces they bought from a resale site, this generation’s wardrobe is probably not coming from a major corporation.

“I think the future is becoming more granular,” Leverton said. “Technology is making it easier for smaller businesses to reach the masses, and that’s the way it’s been trending for the last 10 years. I think that the problem is for bigger brands—giants like Levi’s—to figure out their place in all of that.”

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With that said, panelists agreed that it’s likely the end of the billion-dollar denim brand.

“There’s been a big shift in the industry, and I don’t see it going backwards at all,” Leverton said, noting that customization is forcing production methods to slow down. “I’m excited to see some of the greed and huge corporations pull back.”

Producing anything—even when following all of the best practices in sustainable denim design—is inherently destructive, and that’s a concept Donadi overcomes with his business. Atelier & Repairs was founded as a way to improve, redesign and upcycle clothing and textiles that already exist. Still, Donadi said that it’s possible to make purchases that have less of an impact on the environment.

“I’m not opposed to people buying [new], as long as they make intelligent choices,” he said. “Do you really need it, how long is it going to last, can you afford it and is it making you feel more comfortable with yourself?”