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Can the Denim Supply Chain Rebuild Business and Be Sustainable?

During a week on the calendar that typically see jeans brands launch sustainable lines for Earth Day, and the global supply chain gather to share their new eco-friendly innovations at Kingpins Amsterdam, the denim sector is instead at a standstill as cities and countries wait for shelter-in-place restrictions to be lifted.

With businesses shut and balance sheets stressed, there’s increasing concern that the pace at which the denim supply chain was developing sustainable alternatives is bound to slow down.

“This crisis has generated an extreme contraction in products consumption,” said Lucia Rosin, Meidea head of design. “Unfortunately, investments destined for sustainability will be reduced compared to the previous period.”

Though high-quality, sustainable denim production is optimal, some brands and retailers may prioritize more affordable products as they rebuild their business. Realistically speaking, “accessible clothing” will play a role until consumers and the market have fully recovered, Monsieur-T creative director Tilmann Wröbel said.

For others, said Mohsin Sajid, founder of Denim History, fast and cheap is their business model—there is no better option. “More cheap collections will be coming,” he said. “I feel like this appetite for making things cheap and exploiting workers is never really going to finish.”

Whether it’s a mill or an owner of a fast-fashion company, the goal for these people, he said, is to make things cheaper and to pay less. “If anything, [the pandemic] might lead to less trend garments, and more basic core collections, but it’s hard to tell,” he added.

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However, sustainable manufacturing is in a better place than it was during the Great Recession, when it was still a premium. Demand and awareness for better products—from both the industry and consumers—is higher, and the supply chain has more sustainable solutions to adopt.

“Many brands and retailers are looking for sustainable fabric at a low price or at least at an equal cost to denim without this property,” Rosin said. “I think the increased demand for sustainable material can allow a more optimized production.”

Now, she added, is not the time for mills to retreat to old habits and undo the progress they’ve made. “Those who continue on the path already taken will have an advantage over their competitors in the near future,” Rosin said.

With the future in mind, mills need to begin looking at ways they can incorporate protective performance qualities to their fabrics, Wröbel said.

“This crisis will raise awareness about the future role of fabrics during a possible next pandemic or epidemic,” he added. “Mills [need to] adapt to what will become the next big thing.”

If there’s a silver lining, Sajid said, it is that the pandemic is teeing up a correction in how consumers consume and how brands manufacture. “COVID-19 will affect us in a profound way, similar to 9/11,” he said, describing a ripple effect that will begin with sourcing and the environmental impact of how jeans are made.

It is for that reason why Sajid says it is even more important to invest in sustainable practices and take care of the workers and environments where denim jeans are being produced.

“Hopefully rich, greedy mills owners and fast-fashion companies will push more towards sustainable technologies, blockchain and transparency,” he said.

One of the main things the industry needs to do after this crisis, said Bluezone curator Panos Sofianos, is make “wise decisions about the world we aim to live in.”

“We must all work together in order to support any investment and innovation for denim’s betterment,” he said. “If brands cannot be synchronized with this, they will face a real problem of survival.”

Next phase

While conscious executives tout this crisis as a time to “reset” the industry, Wröbel takes a more pragmatic view. Rather than wide-sweeping change, he likens this pause in business to halftime during a football game: “It’s the moment where you relax your muscles, think about your strategy and get ready for the next half,” he said.

The pandemic will certainly offer designers a chance to flex their creative and strategic-thinking muscles. At Monsieur-T, the task at hand is identifying the opportunities and challenges in the post-COVID-19 period and preparing for several new types of consumer to emerge from this crisis.

“Currently, we are focusing on ideas [about] what could be done with the inventory that is in the warehouses around the world, and which can probably not be used before the next season,” Wröbel said.

The pandemic is also forcing companies to be creative with their messaging. Sajid is working with clients across the supply chain to develop video content as well as co-hosting digital events with Kingpins ED and Fashion Revolution.

“If anything, this crisis has made most of us more savvy on Zoom and Instagram Live,” he said. “It’s even more important now to have a strong social media presence, especially an up-to-date Instagram account with all the company history and CSR work [available].”

With industry events going digital, it’s leading some to reconsider their old schedules.

Though it will be an ongoing process, Wröbel said, it’s time to give the calendar a second thought. “We have sold our souls to an outdated business model,” he said, noting that retailers are in a constant cycle of rushing new product out in order to bring new product in.

“The seasonal calendar and buying cycle has to change, especially as seasons have become quite chaotic,” Sajid said. “It might result in season-less collections.”

That is one area that hasn’t seen a lot of push back from the denim industry, which takes pride in its timelessness. Fashion shows and splashy exhibitions, Sajid added, were on the downturn prior to the pandemic. This may be compounded by the possibility that companies will restrict non-essential travel for employees.

One thing that is clear, when economies open up, it will not be the same denim market that exists prior to the pandemic.

While headlines about rebounding luxury sales in China offer a dash of optimism, treating oneself with a designer handbag carries a different emotional weight than say buying a new pair of jeans.

“I think it’s going to be hard selling product over the next year or so,” Sajid said. “I really don’t think buying [jeans with the latest trendy wash] is at the top of everyone’s list. But hopefully through jeans with a good story and transparency, we can overcome it.”

And not all of the players will return. BLDWN (formerly Baldwin) was among the first brands to shut down because of the economic downturn forced by the coronavirus. Three weeks later True Religion filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy court protection, an unfortunate reversal of fortunes brought on by stores forced to close.

Experts anticipate consolidation across the market. “There will be opportunities for buying brands—and their market position—for little money,” Wröbel said.

And on the flipside, just as the Great Recession sprang to life game-changing direct-to-consumer brands, Rosin expects to see new names rise to the top. “I think we will see the brands that have worked well to consolidate and many new ones to emerge with values [better] suited to the new times and the metamorphosis we are experiencing,” she said.

Or as Sofianos put it: “We all know that nothing happens incidentally in this world and the next ‘modus vivendi’ must be same as our ‘modus operandi.’”