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Experts Weigh in on Fixing Denim’s Biggest Eco Crimes

The marriage of Italian design sensibilities and Californian holistic approaches to sustainability has birthed some of the sharpest minds in denim. Throughout their collective decades of work, industry stalwarts Adriano Goldschmied, Maurizio Donadi and Stefano Aldighieri have helped to popularize—and now, revolutionize—the world’s favorite fabric.

The industry might not have risen to prominence without the keen aesthetic eye of Goldschmied, known to many as the Godfather of Denim. Now, the designer is focused on prompting the sustainable rebirth of jeans worldwide.

Donadi has focused on crafting a circular model for a category once synonymous with waste. At Atelier & Repairs, which he co-founded, reclaimed garments and textiles are reengineered for continued use, granting them a second life.

A veteran of some of the industry’s most prominent and influential labels, Aldighieri now lends his talents and process-driven environmental wisdom to brands across the globe.

Rivet spoke with the denim aficionados about how the industry they love got to this point—and how it can chart a sustainable path forward.

In terms of sustainability, where and when did the denim industry go wrong?

Maurizio Donadi: Denim was originally intended as a durable work uniform and it stayed as such for about 70 years. After World War II there was a major social change and the ‘attitude of jeans’ became an American staple. By the ’70s, denim was a fundamental part of the everyday wardrobe and a huge business opportunity that many companies couldn’t pass. The past 30-40 years represented an indiscriminate, chaotic, greedy and often dishonest marketing and commercial assault to convince global citizens that billions of pairs of poorly designed and badly made jeans are indispensable in the quantities produced.

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Adriano Goldschmied: In the early ’80s we were focused on just creating amazing new products by leading the fashion trends using our Italian passion and ability for craftsmanship. There were no limits to achieve our aesthetic goals. We were thinking to create unique jeans and at that time, we were not even thinking about the fact that our design work had a big influence on massive jean production in the world. Lavanderia Martelli in Italy (today Elleti) was the place where everything was possible, where we developed the stone wash, the acid wash, the bleach and many other uses for chemicals. We didn’t realize that we created an eco-disaster in denim.

Stefano Aldighieri: One could argue that it was never environmentally great to begin with; I often say that if denim did not exist today, we would not be allowed to invent it. Between the massive amounts of water needed to grow cotton, to process the fabric, to wash the garments, the chemicals and the waste, there are several problem areas. These were of course exacerbated once we started mass production and industrial washing.

How has the term ‘sustainability’ evolved throughout your career in the industry?

MD: I think it is our sense of responsibility to be the driver of all good decisions. I was never comfortable with the idea of global domination, unrealistic commercial growth, dishonest marketing campaigns and the exploitation of suppliers.

The term, ‘sustainability’ never appealed to me. It is the illusion that a paradise exists. The human species seems to be a polluter by nature. The only way to limit the depletion of natural resources and maintain ecological balance is to limit production, which is possible only if enforced. Companies will have to be smaller and they will have to be content with smaller profits. Utopia? Maybe. But a great alternative to extinction.

AG: The term ‘sustainability’ was not known at all during my time. It wasn’t until the late ’80s to early ’90s, after the global success of denim finishings, when we started to realize that we were going in a very wrong direction. We understood that as designers we were driving the industry to a dead end and that we had the responsibility to make a real change. Under the influence of the fights of Greenpeace, brands like Patagonia, personalities like Doug Tompkins, together with designers like Katherine Hammett and Marithé + François Girbaud, I changed my vision, and since then my priority was to make sustainable products. In 1992 I launched my first eco-line, A Gold E, that was done entirely in Tencel.

SA: Like everybody else, at the beginning I was not really aware of the heavy footprint that our industry was responsible for. I had an uneasy feeling going to the laundries and seeing processes and chemicals used, but never really understood the scale of the issue. My wake-up call came during the time I worked at Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco, when I had the opportunity to tour the organic cotton farms in the San Joaquin Valley (the same tour that gave Yvon Chouinard the push to dramatically transform Patagonia). From that moment, I tried to understand more about the impact of our industry. Unfortunately, the more you dig, the more you find. At that point you realize that if you knowingly carry on doing things the same way, you become a criminal.

What is denim’s biggest environmental crime?

MD: The denim crime is total. From water consumption to chemical use, from dye treatments to contaminated crops, from challenging labor conditions to massive overproduction, the denim industry generates an extraordinary negative impact on people and on our planet.

AG: So many—not only in the environment, but also in the social development of the business. Cotton is a fiber that needs a lot of water, a lot of land, chemicals and energy. Today, there are alternatives that are more friendly, with less impact. The creation of the indigo color needs hazardous chemicals and elements derived from oil. This needs to be changed for the better. Indigo dye takes tons of water and energy, and new ways of dyeing are on the way.

When it comes to garment finishing, the traditional polluting washing systems are still the majority of global production, and there are better alternatives available. The denim business is also way behind in digitalization and optimizing the production process.

SA: To me the biggest problems started with the proliferation of brands, retailers, factories, laundries—all of a sudden, everybody was making and selling denim products. We quickly reached saturation point and the insane race to the (price) bottom started, only leaving losers behind. The only differentiation became the price point, and in their quest to preserve their margins, most large brands and retailers shut down manufacturing at home and rushed offshore.

The biggest losers were the environment and factory workers everywhere. In the West, they were losing their jobs, and in the East they were being exploited.

Which new technologies and alternatives do you think will have the greatest positive impact on the sector?

MD: I cannot frankly answer this question. I am not technically qualified to mention which technologies will have a positive impact in our sector will be. However, I know there are many textile, chemical and manufacturing companies that are leading by example in creating product and systems that are clean, creative and innovative for the people and the planet. My point of view is that the most sustainable jean is the one not produced, so I dedicate my efforts to recondition what already exists. The leftovers of finished goods and textiles in the world are truly unmeasurable, and denim in particular is huge part of that. My mission is to clean the mess, not adding wood to the fire.

AG: New fibers in modern farms will bring a lot of improvements and much less impact. In nature we have all that we need, including indigo. Bio-technology will change the way of making the indigo.

New dyeing systems like foam dyes and others are on the way with gigantic savings of water. Automation and artificial intelligence will change the nature of traditional manufacturing companies, including the introduction of laser, ozone and nano-technology, among many others.

The digitalization of the entire process from design to marketplaces and sourcing is bringing a totally new method of work, making brands more efficient and saving money that they can designate to other critical areas, like a substantial benefit for workers and social activities.

SA: Thankfully, technology is helping our industry to reduce the impact in many aspects. The recycling of raw materials is now possible, less harmful chemicals have been developed, harsh laundry processes are now being done with a combination of lasers and ozone processes. While perhaps still not perfect, it’s a huge step in the right direction. The sooner we can completely eliminate pumice stones, bleach and potassium permanganate from our factories, the better for all.

What is the industry’s next step toward sustainability in a post-COVID-19 world?

MD: The natural and human resources needed to maintain and grow the denim industry will greatly limit any ambition for a cleaner planet and the well-being of its citizens. We produce too much. As the second largest polluter in the world, the industry of apparel and textile must be regulated. It is maybe a harsh alternative, but the only one that can stop this legalized crime.

AG: Consumers will ask for more sustainable, circular and more transparent products and the industry will try to accelerate this process. However, I think the big point is the sustainability for people and workers. We face a big contraction of numbers for the global production that means more unemployment and the serious problem of reorganization of our segment. I think that hopefully the crisis will be a huge occasion to design a new society more fairly for everybody, where the dollar is not the only value and where the wellness and health of people comes first. Sustainability has to be a part of the new normal, which hopefully will be better than the old one.

SA: Every cloud comes with a silver lining. In our case, the whole industry had to stop completely. While very dramatic for many companies, this forced pause is making us all reconsider priorities and needs. The biggest and most noticeable change, in my opinion, is going to be a much-needed reduction of volume of apparel produced. Even before the crisis, we already knew that about one-third of all the garments made would never be sold, and that three quarters of the ones made would end up in a landfill soon. This was an unsustainable situation which needed correcting. Our ultimate goal must be a working circular economy.

This article appears in Rivet’s new report “New Wave: Alternative Solutions for a More Sustainable Denim Industry. Click here to download the report.