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Denim May Have a Brand New Manual for Sustainability

Disposable fashion has been taking its toll on the planet, though efforts toward improving sustainability continue to ramp up as more companies—and consumers—show greater concern.

In her own effort to ramp up sustainability in the denim sector specifically, fashion journalist Paulina Szmydke-Cacciapalle released a new book, “Making Jeans Green,” which she hopes will become a sustainability manual for the denim industry, offering eco-friendly alternatives and solutions.

The book demonstrates how denim can pave the way for more circular fashion, while giving the spotlight to jean brands taking the steps to curb apparel pollution.

“Denim, to me, is the king category,” Szmydke-Cacciapalle said. “It’s true that the fabric has one of the largest ecological footprints, but it’s also the most forward-thinking. The amount of innovation, research and development that is happening in the field could shine the way for other materials, which are not nearly as transparent as denim. “

As a fashion journalist, Szmydke-Cacciapalle witnessed firsthand the compelling need for denim sustainability and the importance of collaborative action to alleviate the industry’s negative environmental footprint. “Back when I started covering textile trade shows, sustainability was a mere trend. Now it has become a necessity. It’s the new standard for those with a real business vision,” she said.

While the denim industry is responsible for changing the supply chain side of the business, Szmydke-Cacciapalle believes consumers will be a core element in sustainable change. If consumers had more options to make more eco-conscious wardrobe choices, they wouldn’t resort to a closet purge at the end of the season, she said.

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“I do believe that individuals can make a difference. The problem is, there is simply not enough information available for consumers to make educated choices. If you want a clean pair of jeans, where do you go and how do you know what is green and what isn’t,” she said.

Rivet caught up with Szmydke-Cacciapalle to better understand why she believes denim is a catalyst for sustainable fashion and how creative collaboration between suppliers, brands and consumers will lead to a greener future.

Rivet: How does our denim consumption come at a social and environmental cost?

Paulina Szmydke-Cacciapalle: In the denim market, the greatest volume is observed at the lower end of the price spectrum. But there is no way that a pair of $7.99 jeans is sustainable. Consumers need to be aware of the fact that if they are not paying the price, someone else is. There are plenty of cheap denim treatments widely in use that pose a real health hazard to factory workers. Other than the aforementioned water and chemical problem, there is also a growing waste problem. We manufacture more than we can sell and we buy more than we need. Most of that clothing ends up in landfill or is incinerated, along with the precious resources that went into manufacturing those clothes in the first place.

Rivet: What are some sustainability strategies that the book offers for the denim industry?

PSC: Denim making is a nuanced and complex undertaking. Knowing what is truly green and what isn’t is often hard to make out, and there are traps all along the way. Some mills dye their fabrics with natural indigo, which sounds eco-friendly, but instead of doing it the old-school way via fermentation, they pump the vat with hazardous chemicals. Well, that is not sustainable. There have never been as many alternatives for conventional dyeing and finishing as there are today. If you want to leave sodium hydrosulfite out of the equation, you can.

Also, there is no excuse for denim brands not to use sustainable cotton. They say there isn’t enough available, but that’s not true. We know that only 17 percent of all sustainable cotton is sold as such, the rest ends up on the conventional market. And then there is the financial aspect. Working with sustainable mills and laundries will save you money. Moreover, these new technologies offer a fabulous playground for creativity. That surely should appeal to the fashion sector, which prides itself on ingenuity and imagination.

Making Jeans Green, Denim Sustainability
Making Jeans Green by Paulina Szmydke-Cacciapalle

Rivet: How can consumers be more eco-friendly?

PSC:Research suggests that the shopping frenzy is a result of consumers’ frustration, as they are unable to find a pair that fits. So, here’s a thought: Invest in a brand that puts a focus on proper patternmaking or have your denim tailored. You are unlikely to throw a pair of jeans in the garbage that really fits you. Jeans are highly versatile pieces of clothing—no need to buy a new pair every season. With a little imagination or help from a “denim doctor,” the next hit item may already be in your closet. But most importantly, consumers need to exercise more pressure on brands and retailers.

Rivet: Who are the leaders driving circularity for denim?

PSC: We are far away from a really circular fashion system, including denim. That’s because the technology at this point is not allowing it. How cool would it be though to have a completely biodegradable pair of jeans that gives nutrients back to where it took its raw materials from? But there are initiatives that are moving in the right direction. And collaboration is key.

Cue Circle Economy’s plans to create a marketplace for the so-called “seconds,” which describes some 750 million meters of fabric that are discarded because they are considered flawed in some silly way. Or Colors of Nature in India, which has been using the same dyeing water since 1993. It doesn’t need to be as high-tech as that. Classic denim—and by that I mean non-stretch, preferably unwashed jeans—per se is designed to last. Put simply, what you keep reusing in your household automatically creates a circular model.

Rivet: Who is your role model for sustainability?

PSC: It’s indie brands like Story Mfg, Re/Done, Patagonia or Everlane that are really moving the needle forward today. Instead of flooding the market with clothing they can’t sell because it’s clothing no one needs, they look for alternative business models and take sustainability seriously.

Rivet: What is it really going to take to shift the denim industry to a more circular model in the future?

PSC: I don’t believe that there will ever be a universal, international set of laws forcing the industry to be circular. The pull has to come from the two parties doing the transaction, i.e. the brands and the consumers. Brands need to produce less but better, while consumers need to buy smarter. It’s really not that hard.