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In Denim, Authenticity and Innovation Coexist in the Quest for Sustainability

Sustainable denim begins with sourcing, but the debate on which ingredients and technologies are best for the environment—and business—rattles on. At Amsterdam Denim Days last week, industry leaders discussed how the recipe for denim is evolving and moving at a faster pace than the demand for sustainable jeans.

For Tony Tonnaer, founder of the Amsterdam-based brand, Kings of Indigo, modern denim has to be made with sustainable raw materials. “There’s no way back,” he said.

Sustainable processes and alternative fibers that launched 20 years ago have become more efficient, scalable and mainstream, he said. The supply chain is making investments in new technologies, dialogues about sustainable fashion are growing louder and minds that have been set in old ways are becoming more open to alternatives, with recycled cotton being one that Tonnaer feels strongly about.

“We should not see all clothing as waste. It can be the start of a new garment,” he said, adding that innovations in pre- and post-consumer recycled cotton and blends with natural fibers and manmade fibers like Tencel are among the newness adding excitement to the denim category.

“Innovation is our future,” he said. “New startups are coming up with great ideas and it is so exciting to see that our industry, which is the second most polluted industry in the world, is finally coming to action and coming up with alternatives. There are so many new business opportunities to keep us all motivated, and more areas to improve.”

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But the buck stops there, Tonnaer added, as it is still a challenge to find a pair of sustainable jeans in most cities’ main shopping areas. “There’s a big gap between the mindset of the industry and where retail is at the moment,” he said.

Adriano Goldschmied was an early exponent of alternative fibers like Tencel, but the denim veteran recognizes the internal battle that designers and consumers have between wanting to do good for the environment and wanting to make and wear styles that fit the classical notion of a jean.

Cotton, he added, is connected to the vintage look and hand denim consumers are unwilling to sacrifice.

“Cotton is the fiber that has a major impact on the environment, but on the other side, we love cotton and the look of cotton,” Goldschmied said.

However, the environmental impact of traditional denim makes for a quality soundbite for environmental and consumer groups. The industry pressed pause in 2007 when Levi Strauss & Co. conducted a lifecycle assessment of a pair of Levi’s 501 jeans and revealed that cotton cultivation contributes 68 percent of the 3,781 liters of water required to make one pair.

Meanwhile, aniline, a chemical precursor used to make synthetic indigo and a Group B2 human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is increasingly drawing fire from consumer reports.

“Cotton and indigo are under attack,” said Alberto Candiani, owner of Candiani Denim. “Denim is under attack.”

Rather than retreat to old (and bad) habits, Candiani said the pressure to minimize the industry’s impact on the environment should incite innovations and inspire efficiency-driven solutions.

“Efficiency was the grandfather of sustainability,” he said. “When it comes to recycling our own waste, we do it because we want to be efficient. It’s normal to do that. You can throw a lot of marketing around it and make it sound like a big deal, but it’s built into our philosophy at Candiani.”

For the mill, sustainability starts with R&D and imagination. “It’s a very good combination of science and creativity,” Candiani said. “We’re not trying to replace the original denim made with cotton. We are trying to improve it.”

Candiani says he is unmoved by reports that claim thousands of liters of water are used to grow cotton. “That’s no longer true,” he said. “You have to consider that 70 percent of the cotton on earth grows because it rains. People think that all the cotton is grown with artificial irrigation, [but] even artificial irrigation has developed so much in the past 10 years. Those numbers are truly just to scare people and do not reflect reality.”

Nonetheless, improvements require money. A self-described “purist of innovation,” Candiani said innovation often calls for new technology and ingredients. However, nine out of 10 “smart ingredients” cost more.

“You have to create a product that you know where will be a market for. That is not happening yet,” he said.

In Candiani’s experience, the mill has put together sustainable ingredients and technologies to create a unique offer to customers—a quality that makes the premium denim mill distinguishable from others and a recognizable fabric brand all over the world.

“But we’re not doing that because there is a demand,” he said. “The demand is very weak, but we believe by offering alternative thinking, we’re opening a new segment because, as Candiani, we cannot compete with the basics. If I stick to the 15-oz. cotton and indigo denims, I’m done because you can find good stuff for half the price.”

Working closely with suppliers is a linchpin in Candiani’s plan to innovate.

Case in point: Candiani relies on Lenzing innovations like Refibra technology, which blends recycled cotton scraps with wood pulp to make new fibers. The mill’s award-winning Re-Gen fabric is made with 50 percent Refibra fibers and 50 percent recycled fibers.

“When it’s Lenzing you know the chemistry behind it is safe in the first place, and its good chemistry that gives good fiber with good properties that you can blend with cotton to achieve better touch and better aesthetic without compromising authenticity,” Candiani said.

“Authenticity and innovation are not a conflict.”