The degree of success the denim industry achieves moving forward may hinge on whether it can create a sustainable future.
As the market of ethical and health-conscious consumers expands, so does the demand for more sustainable fabric. A recent report from global technology research and advisory company Technavio, said the global denim jeans market is expected to grow by more than $14 million by 2024. And much of the growth, Technavio said, will be attributed to the industry’s adoption of organic cotton. Global production of organic cotton increased 56 percent in the 2017-2018 crop year—the largest output of organic cotton since the recession.
But organic cotton is just one part of the puzzle. As the innovations that have come from mills, fiber companies and chemical specialists in 2019 indicate, denim is on a sustainable journey that touches on every step from fiber and dyes, to finishes and trims.
It’s that 360-degree view that the Ellen MacArthur Foundation promoted in 2019 with the launch of The Jeans Redesign Guidelines. Developed with more than 40 denim experts, the initiative provides minimum requirements on garment durability, material health, recyclability and traceability, and the guidelines are based on the principles of the circular economy. The goal? To encourage companies to make jeans that will last longer, can be easily recycled, and are made in a way that’s better for the environment and garment workers’ health.
Since launching in July, brands like Boyish Jeans, C&A, Guess, Lee Jeans, Mud Jeans. Tommy Hilfiger and more have signed on, as well as players from the supply chain, including Cone Denim, Prosperity Textile and Soorty.
These commitments and investments in resource-saving innovations are moving the denim industry in a positive direction. Here’s a look at some of the sustainable steps the denim supply chain made in 2019.
In 2019, mills turned their attention to developing indigo-dyed fabrics that consume less natural resources and use efficient finishing technology.
In its second season of using water-reducing D-Clear technology, Calik expanded the process to more of its collection. The technology uses 40 percent less water in the indigo dyeing process and 83 percent less water during finishing, and reduces the volume of chemicals used per meter by 94 percent.
Italian denim mill Berto introduced Sky, a new indigo cast that uses pre-reduced indigo, allowing brands to wash down to a lighter shade while using less water and chemicals. And Prosperity Textile was among the mills that dabbled in indigo-free denim with authentic wash-downs. The mill’s Revelation Blue collection features a proprietary eco dyeing technology that is aniline-free, hydrosulfite-free and saves 60 percent water.
Interest in non-traditional colors also widened the playing field for more sustainable dye techniques. Maritas Denim from Turkey showcased its Terra Denim collection, a product line made with clay-based pigments. The resulting earth-hued fabrics use 80 percent less water, 35 percent less energy and fewer chemicals than traditional dyeing systems.
Tonello debuted Wake, the first 100 percent eco-sustainable dyeing system that uses only organic and compostable raw materials. The process uses plant and vegetable waste such as flowers, berries and roots, which are dried and infused with no chemical additives. Benefits of Wake include shorter processing times, a decrease in CO2 emissions, biodegradable solid waste and safer and healthier dyes and processes.
Artistic Milliners also experimented with natural colors. Along with using Archroma’s EarthColors, the fully vertical company integrated its own natural dye solution derived from plant- and food-based sources. The 100 percent natural dye process uses softeners from organic sources, too.
With denim giants like Levi’s moving forward with laser finishing, mills emphasized fabrics that are laser compatible in 2019.
Naveena’s X.0 collection touted laser-sensitive fabrics dubbed Beam Denim. The fabrics are specifically designed for laser applications, allowing for easy chip-off and reduced finishing time. Additionally, the mill says the fabrics are easy on the environment, saving on energy and water and eliminating harsh chemicals.
Kassim Denim presented Automic, a process that allows brands to eliminate dry processes. The mill achieves this by applying indigo to the yarn surface only, meaning brands can create whiskers, scrapping and blast effects similar to dry processes by hand with more sustainable and time efficient lasers.
Artistic Fabric and Garment Industries (AFGI) bowed M-Power fabrics, a range of denim fabrics designed to empower the use of lasers. The fabrics are made with 100 percent cellulose fibers to avoid heat damage and melting under the light. M-Power fabrics are also sulfur free, making it the ideal canvas for the lasers to create crisp or vintage images.
And Rudolf Hub 1922 sought ways to make laser finishing more efficient with the application of Laser Primer, a technology made up of four processes that can “significantly enhance” aesthetics of indigo and sulphur dyes and achieve important energy savings. The chemical specialist worked with two customers over the course of eight months to develop the process. The first products made with Laser Primer is due to be in stores in Spring 2020.
Recycled content was a common thread across the denim supply chain.
For Prosperity, the focus was upgrading the mill’s recycled cotton line. The mill debuted Reindigo fabrics made with 100 percent indigo yarns recycled from the cutting waste fabrics and indigo yarn waste. No further indigo-dyeing process is needed to achieve true blue denim looks thanks to the original indigo tones that came with the recycled indigo ingredients.
Cone Denim Recycled Cotton collection was introduced in 2019 as a means for the mill to promote a closed-loop manufacturing system that reduces energy consumption and material waste, uses pre-consumer and post-consumer waste in the production of socially responsible fabrics.
Mills also created recipes of sustainable fibers. Artistic Milliners led with BioVision, a new range of fabrics that follow the new Ellen MacArthur Foundation Jeans Redesign guidelines. The fabrics, dyed with the mill’s proprietary Crystal Clear technology, are made with a roster of sustainable components including biodegradable Roica polyester, organic cotton and Lenzing products (up to 70 percent in some fabrics).
Candiani launched ReSolve fabrics made with organic cotton and a customized Roica V550 degradable stretch yarn developed exclusively for Candiani by Roica’s parent company, Asahi Kasei. The fabric range introduces V Sizing, a vegetal sizing compound used in the dyeing process that also serves as a vegan alternative to Kitotex, a chemical technology derived from food waste.
Kaltex offered fabrics made with Repreve polyester, post-consumer waste and scraps from its own factory. The mill’s Stacked grouping combined these eco concepts to form a complete sustainable story. AFGI introduced the Pure Collection, a line of fabrics made from more responsible sources including post-consumer recycled denim, post-industrial recycled cotton, organic cotton, Better Cotton, hemp, post-consumer recycled polyester, Tencel Refibra and more.
And in December, Lenzing Group announced its Refibra technology reached a new milestone with the first successful production of Tencel Lyocell fibers using post-consumer cotton waste as part of the recycled raw material portion of the fiber’s content. Lenzing can incorporate up to 10 percent of post-consumer cotton waste in that 30 percent recycled raw material content.