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2020 in Review: The Pandemic Tested Denim’s Commitment to Sustainability

Creating a more sustainable supply chain and more efficient processes are non-negotiables for most in the denim business. In reality, however, the global denim industry had two options when the pandemic struck in early 2020: it could work to maintain the years of momentum it had been building to reduce its overall environmental footprint, or, as an industry in survival mode, it could pull back on investments in solution-oriented technologies and curb sustainable projects in progress.

Though data and analytics company GlobalData warned that sustainable fashion could become a “Covid-19 casualty” as companies scramble to stay afloat, the latter was not a choice for most. With the global health crisis magnifying the fragility of people and the planet, players across the supply chain pushed forward with their efforts and sustainability goals.

2020 has brought new developments in fibers, dyeing, finishing and more. And the accolades show proof. Spanish denim mill Tejidos Royo was recognized by the European Commission as one of Europe’s greenest businesses. Bangladesh-based denim manufacturer and washing plant Denim Expert Limited was named a “New Champion” by the World Economic Forum, the not-for-profit foundation that engages political, business, cultural and other leaders to shape global and industry agendas. Chemical company Archroma earned the top ranking from Beijing’s Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs’ (IPE) list of industrial chemical companies driving transparency in their supply chain.

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The year also saw a consumer base that is more conscious of the role they play in undoing the environmental harm of their purchases. Retail market intelligence platform Edited reported that the most commonly used keyword to describe new sustainable products between January and September was “conscious.” Instances of the buzzword in product descriptions are up 22 percent from 2019, and awhopping 444 percent versus 2018.

Indeed, suppliers are rolling out solutions that not only benefit the environment but also provide consumers an intriguing story.

Italy’s Candiani Denim made good on its commitment to produce no new fabric that isn’t more sustainable than its previous generation with one of the buzziest launches of the year for Coreva, the first biodegradable stretch denim. Developed and patented by Candiani, the technology replaces conventional synthetic and petrol-based elastomers with natural rubber, resulting in a biodegradable product with uncompromised elasticity, physical qualities and durability.

A list of who’s-who in denim, including long-time Candiani partner Denham, Stella McCartney, Hiut Denim Co., Outerknown and more are among the brands to already introduce the fiber into their collections.

Prosperity Textile also presented its Biostretch innovation, which provides a plant-based, biodegradable alternative to polyester.

While interest in biodegradable will likely grow in 2021, products that touted alternatives such as recycled fibers or repurposed fabrics, which reduce the chemicals, water and energy used for creating new products, were among the most accessible versions of sustainable jeans in 2020, Edited reported.

This circular mindset was born in denim mills and in 2020, they built on their existing circular efforts by replacing virgin fibers with recycled alternatives.

This year Calik Denim debuted its E-Denim, a technology that allows the mill to increase its total recycled content rate to 50 percent in stretch fabrics and 80 percent to 100 percent in rigid product groups. US Denim was among the roster of mills that added Repreve Our Ocean, Unifi’s recycled polyester fiber made from plastic waste collected from coastlines. Abd AFM developed a range of fabrics using post-industrial waste found at the mill.

The Ellen MacArthur’s Jean Redesign program was a driving force behind mills’ inclusion of circular fibers. Designed as a path to bring more circular denim products to the market, more than 60 leading brands, manufacturers and fabrics mills are following the guidelines which marked its one-year anniversary in 2020.

Water conservation continued to be another critical area of focus for the denim industry.

Tejidos Royo debuted Dry Black, the sulfur black counterpart to Dry Indigo, a waterless dye technique that also reduces chemical substances almost entirely from the process. Whereas conventional dyeing would require yarn to be pulled through a dozen boxes, Dry Black require none, and therefore use zero water. Just 300-350 liters of water are used to clean the machines.

Blue Diamond’s liquid indigo called Smart Indigo was a key ingredient in its Wizard fabric. By being sensitive to laser and ozone washes, the fabrics allow the mill to reduce time and cost in the dyeing and washing phases.

In the fall, Elevated Textiles-owned Cone Denim introduced the Clean Water selvedge denim made from OCS-certified 100 percent organic cotton with comfort stretch and dyed using distilled Indigo, the cleanest on the market and part of Cone’s eco-friendly dye technologies. The fabric’s defining feature? A light blue selvedge line.

As part of Cone Community Collection, the mill will donate a portion of proceeds from the sale of the fabric to, an international nonprofit organization that has positively transformed millions of lives around the world with access to safe water and sanitation.

Global Denim continued its Cleandigo and Ecolojean programs, bringing zero water discharge to the water treatment plant and using what it described as the cleanest indigo in the market that is also aniline-free.

Sustainable claims, however, fall flat without transparency and traceability.

Cone Denim made news in September when it partnered with Oritain, a product and supply-chain traceability specialist that uses forensic science and statistics to identify “origin footprints,” to become the first denim mill to adopt this high level of end-to-end traceability for the cotton it uses.

“Traceability and sustainability are no longer just industry buzzwords but strong-held values fast becoming the gold standard for our customers and the consumer,” said Cone president Steve Maggard.