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4 Lessons in Sustainability Denim Can Learn From the Outdoor Market

It’s no secret the outdoor footwear and apparel categories have the market cornered on sustainability.

After all, their businesses rely on the actual availability of an outdoors to explore, which has spawned a natural position as sustainability seekers. So what can the denim industry learn from the outdoor space as sustainable and circular production is fast becoming the price of entry?

Rivet spoke to experts in both industries to glean the most important lessons denim could potentially embrace when it comes to sustainability.

1. Put sustainability at the center of your brand’s mission

Outdoor brands are expected to put their sustainability accomplishments front and center in their brand story, as it’s a clear message that immediately resonates with their customer base. However, denim is an inherently resource-intensive material and brands have been loath to mention sustainability in the past. As consumer interest in sustainability continues to drive growth, denim brands will have to continue to involve sustainability in every aspect of their business.

New, sustainable denim brands are popping up every day, it seems, and older brands will need to continue to adapt and improve if they want to compete. Tricia Carey, director of business development for denim at Lenzing Fibers, says brands need to implement sustainability into their supply chainsstarting at fiber and reaching all the way to retail.

“When brands look at sustainability they need to review each step of their supply chain from fiber to finished garment,” Carey told Rivet. “With regards to price, it will cost even more long term if the environment is not considered. Each year there are more denim supply chain and brands supporting social programs, especially towards the advancement of women, which is excellent progress.  What I see lacking are external programs related to environmental causes.”

Noting that denim has different dyeing requirements than knitted fibers, Carey says denim brands should begin by looking to limit their consumption of water and to research their impact on local water sources, followed by ensuring products have long lives. Brands should also carefully consider the social impact of their business and to try to limit the number of chemicals involved during production.

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“For denim brands, their connection to sustainability needs to be authentic and cannot deviate from strong product design,” Carey said. “Sustainability should be woven into product seamlessly and not forced.”

2. Learn to tell sustainable stories that resonate with consumers

One of the strongest brand moments over the past couple of years was when Patagonia directly challenged the Trump Administration over its treatment of national parks and the designation of national monuments. Not only did Patagonia put its money where its mouth was, but its support was also a sign to consumers that the brand cared about the environment just as much as they did.

Matt Powell, vice president and senior industry advisor for NPD, told Rivet that it wasn’t just the act itself that attracted consumers, it was also the way that Patagonia told the story and stood behind its message.

“There probably has not been any other brand in the outdoor space that has taken as visible and vocal a position on the environment, on environmental sustainability, on the preservation of land than Patagonia,” Powell said. “I am absolutely convinced the reason the brand is doing so well is because of these visible positions.”

Even in the outdoor industry, Powell said, brands can sometimes be hesitant to tell their sustainability story.

“While they have always been committed to the environment, the outdoor lifestyle, the parks and the public land, I think they take it for granted that the consumer really knows that,” Powell said. “I have said to them, ‘You all need to decide what issues you are going to support or not. But, you need to step up and tell the story.'”

Denim brands, on the other hand, have a much less crowded market (at least at present) when it comes to powerful sustainability messages.

“Try to improve every year. Then, very humbly, let the consumer know about the work you’ve done,” Powell said.

3. Don’t limit yourself to what has already been done

Icebug, a Swedish outdoor footwear brand, recently announced that its brand had officially reached carbon neutral. The company did so by not only remodeling its footwear from the ground up with new materials and production practices, but also by purchasing a large amount of UN-approved carbon credits.

Doing so created a great deal of buzz for the brand, as it was the first time a footwear brand had managed to achieve such a state.

But denim brands don’t have to wait until they achieve a level of sustainability akin to Icebug in order to tell sustainable stories. Simply reaching out for the uncommon and the seemingly “impossible” can be enough to inspire confidence in consumers.

For instance, PVH Corp.-owned Tommy Hilfiger recently announced that it would be releasing its first line of 100 percent recycled cotton denim for Spring ’19. The PVH Denim Center in Amsterdam took the lead to create a recycled cotton yarn previously considered out of reach even by those within the industry.

“We have a responsibility to future generations to manufacture products in a more thoughtful way to protect our environment,” Tommy Hilfiger said in a statement. “Starting with how we design and produce some of our denim styles, we want to inspire consumers to make sustainable changes.”

4. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good

Although it’s clear that making as much progress as possible toward combatting climate change and limiting a brands’ impact on the environment is an admirable goal—experts also warn against setting expectations too high.

“Any kind of manufacturing is going to create by-products, there is always waste in manufacturing,” Powell replied when asked what advice he would give to sustainable denim brands. “There is no perfect score here. You don’t want to say ‘We’ve done everything we can.’ Because no, you haven’t.”

Some brands, Powell said, have even held back from telling their sustainability story with consumers simply because they were not able to meet their own lofty standards. If a sustainability initiative is beneficial to the environment and a business, no matter how small, Powell said brands should want to tell consumers about it.

Seconding the sentiment, Carey said brands should take every chance they get to join in sustainability programs like the UN Fashion Climate Charter, and the “From Trees, For Trees” tree-planting initiative Lenzing is leading with denim brands Triarchy and Boyish. Carey believes these are great examples of small, cost-effective ways brands can weave sustainability into their narrative.

“I encourage brands to work with their supply chain and take steps each season to make a change,” Carey said. “Don’t try to tackle everything at one time. The market is always evolving and so can products. What might have been too expensive one season, might work another year.”