The peace and love state that has fueled conscious living trends for decades can now tout denim sustainability as its new cause du jour.
A handful of fashion-loving good-doers is plotting to overtake California’s denim industry, and these forward thinkers are hoping that the world will follow their lead.
“The industry has done a good job of keeping under wraps the way things are made,” said Adam Taubenfligel, founder and creative director of Triarchy Denim, a Los Angeles-based jeans brand. “Through time and experience, it became very apparent to us how damaging denim is to our planet, and how many resources it consumes.”
In California, water is an especially touchy subject. Droughts have ravaged the state on a near-constant basis over the past decade, and recent wildfires have left unprecedented levels of destruction in their wake.
“If you live in L.A., you’ve been very aware of the risks,” Taubenfligel explained. “The topic of water is a real thing. In time, you can’t not pay attention to it.”
Remembering his early days in the denim industry, Jordan Nodarse of Boyish Jeans is in agreement. The founder and designer added, “Being inside the factories, I really started seeing how much water was being used… I started questioning, ‘What are the chemicals being put in there, and what are the implications to the environment?’”
According to Nodarse, it can take up to 1,800 gallons of water to make just one pair of standard jeans. That’s about 500 billion gallons to create the jeans sold in the U.S. every year.
Brands like Boyish and Triarchy are on a mission to redefine the traditional denim supply chain, from sourcing to spinning, production and finishing. They’ve brought different perspectives and approaches to the issue of sustainability in denim, and their founders are committed to sharing trade secrets.
“We’re in this industry to come together and help each other,” said Nodarse. “I’ll tell Adam, ‘I use these chemicals.’ I don’t want him not to use them. It’s like a band of brothers in a way, this industry.”
Taubenfligel is also adamant that the only way to change things is through collaboration. “We share information; we talk about what we’re doing. It builds a community, instead of a room full of competitors,” he said.
Both founders are proponents of redefining the material from the ground up, using varied combinations of organic and recycled cotton in their denim formulations, along with cellulosic fibers.
Recycling material is something Nodarse is particularly passionate about, as it cuts down immensely on water consumption. “Whatever you can prevent from ending up in a landfill is a bonus,” he added.
Many of Boyish’s jeans are made with a blend of recycled cotton (from salvaged fabric or the company’s own re-spun scraps), certified organic cotton from farms that pledge efficient water usage and Tencel Lyocell with Refibra technology.
“My thing was finding fabrics that don’t require all this extra processing,” he explained. “A lot of the stretch fabrics have polyurethane-based fibers and polyesters that are harder to wash. They require more harsh chemicals.”
Instead, Nodarse explained, Boyish uses mostly rigid denim because it “washes beautifully, looks vintage and mixes with the recycled cotton that we have.”
Triarchy has also championed recycling with its premium Atelier line, which is made from vintage denim. “We spent so much time trying to match vintage washes, then we became aware of the plethora of vintage materials available to us in Los Angeles,” Taubenfligel said. The brand sources large sizes of vintage jeans, deconstructs them and uses the pieces to create new garments.
Sustainable women’s clothing brand Amour Vert, (“Green Love,” in the founder’s native French), launched its denim business about a year ago with Agolde, an L.A.-based denim brand. The collaboration utilizes all organic or recycled cotton, and relies on lasers to create whiskering effects and different finishing patterns on the denim, said Amanda Salinas, Amour Vert’s head of marketing. The process replaces the use of traditional hand-sanding or stone-washing techniques.
“We’re able to replicate those techniques with a fraction of the water it usually takes, with beautiful results,” she said.
“Five years ago it was really difficult—people didn’t really know the right fabrics to use, and sustainability wasn’t really being talked about,” she explained. “But the more brands that enter the market, the more opportunities there are, and the more mills and factories are coming up with sustainable options as the demand grows.”
As for where that growing demand comes from, Salinas said that it’s a “chicken and egg kind of question.” She believes that brands have a responsibility to drive environmentally-friendly processes. But she knows that the consumer will ultimately play the biggest role in pushing sustainability from an abstract concept to an irrefutable reality.
“Where before there were only a few brands doing this, we had a really big job teaching people,” she said. “But as more brands emerge with these sustainable messages, more consumers are aware of the impact. And they’re demanding sustainability from brands.”
Taubenfligel is hopeful that Gen Z will take up the consciousness mantle. Unlike their millennial counterparts, they haven’t faced “years of conditioning” by fast-fashion brands.
“It’s kind of a psychoanalytical thing, talking about sustainability—but that’s where it needs to start,” he said. “Maybe people will start realizing that these companies are getting us to buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have. Maybe that will start to rub them the wrong way, and they’ll start thinking, ‘Less is more.’”
Nodarse, too, is hopeful, but he admits that the sustainable denim movement is just ramping up. There’s still much work to be done, he said, but “it’s about our progress.”
“It goes back to the Darwinian concept of survival of the fittest,” he explained. “If you put stress on somebody to change… You’re evolving, and becoming better, but you’re never perfect. You just continue to evolve.”
For now, Taubenfligel knows brands like Triarchy are filling a particular niche for a consumer who has made the conscious decision to care. But he hopes the message will spread throughout the industry eventually, and that other brands will jump on the sustainability bandwagon.
“Sustainability has become a buzzword, and people don’t want to be left behind on the trend,” he asserted. “I think that’s great. Who cares how you get there, as long as you do.”
Despite the challenges, Taubenfligel is resolute in his goal to help usher in a new era.
“When you go into department stores around the world, you see the same five brands that dominate the denim wall. I would love to see them just put up another shelf for those of us who are doing really amazing stuff with sustainability. I would love to see some of our brands up on those walls, too.”
“It’s a whole new way of creating and consuming,” he added. “It takes more than just one brand to do that.”