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Why It’s Now or Never for Sustainable Denim

Sustainability is a lifeline for denim brands as they begin to recover from the pandemic. The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown fashion retailers in a state of frenzy, and the denim industry is no different.

Denim companies must then make a decision, experts say: to see sustainability as either an albatross or a lifeline. While brands in survival mode might be tempted to jettison their sustainable investments, especially if they’re part of a stand-alone strategy that doesn’t have repercussions for other parts of their business, doing so would be a fatal mistake, according to Laura Balmond, program manager of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular Jeans Redesign initiative, which aims to make denim production less wasteful and polluting.

“The pandemic has shown the fragility of today’s fashion industry and the risks it faces in the long term if it does not change,” she said. “The only way to ensure businesses can be resilient enough to tackle this type of situation without sacrificing their other priorities—like addressing climate change, waste and pollution—is to…put them at the core of their brand.”

In short, Covid-19 is only one tremor that has rattled supply chains. Bigger, more existential threats still loom on the horizon. Brands that incorporate sustainability as part of their rehabilitation, positioning the prolonged global pause as an opportunity rather than a catastrophe, however, may be better positioned for future upheavals such as those caused by a warming, increasingly overcrowded planet.

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“As we emerge from this crisis, we have a choice: to rebuild the fashion industry as it was before—wasteful, polluting and fragile—or to redesign it, and to create an industry that helps us to thrive in the long term,” Balmond said.

For denim purveyors, whose own copious use of cotton, water and potentially toxic dyes and chemicals is an open secret, the contagion has accelerated a social and environmental reckoning long in the making. Covid has underscored both the glaring economic inequities that are endemic to the apparel supply chain and the benefits of a world where humans aren’t polluting all the time.

“Denim is one of the most universal, loved and enduring subsets of the fashion industry, but it’s also one of the dirtiest,” said James Bartle, CEO of Outland Denim, which sources organic cotton and employs women who have experienced sexual exploitation. “The pandemic has forced every industry to adapt and find new ways of moving forward, and it’s my hope that denim brands can work together to lead the way for fashion into a more sustainable future.”

Outland Denim collaborated with Australian label Spell on a five-piece denim capsule for which it will provide manufacturing services.
Outland Denim Courtesy

The crisis has created an opening for more innovative business models. Outland Denim, which suffered a hit when brick-and-mortar partners like Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s shuttered during mandatory lockdowns, is now moving from two seasonal collections a year to six smaller capsule lines that will generate less risk associated with long-lead forecasting, less deadstock and more newness to consumers with a “considered, sustainable approach.” It’s also bringing its purpose-led mission to other quarters, crowdfunding over $1 million in investments for a new venture that will manufacture clothing for outside brands. “This is a chance to expand our business, our social impact and our impact on the fashion industry,” Bartle said.

On top of that, the pandemic is breeding a different type of consumer who realizes that less just might be more. A recent survey commissioned by biotech firm Genomatica found that 85 percent of Americans have been thinking about sustainability the same amount or more since the outbreak. In another poll from Brandwatch, 57 percent of respondents expressed a desire for businesses to strengthen sustainability efforts in 2021. The brands themselves are witnessing this pivot in real time.

“We are seeing that consumers are realizing that they can disconnect from the habit of buying when each season or collection lands in store, and can thus align their decision on factors such as durability, the sustainability commitments brands have made and their alignment with a company’s values,” a Levi Strauss spokesperson said. Consumers, as Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh said in a July earnings call, now crave both “value and values.”

Levi’s is pushing forward with its 2025 Water Action Strategy and on product innovations such as its recent collaboration with recycled-cotton producer Re:newcell, which yielded what the denim giant has dubbed the “most sustainable, most circular garment” it has ever made. “We know that in this moment, even as we shore up the business from a financial and operational point of view, we have to earn the right to be the brand consumers turn to, not just because of what we make, but because of how we make our products and how we conduct ourselves as a business,” the spokesperson said. “As consumers trend toward more conscious consumption and the pandemic convinces people—especially young people—that it’s better to buy fewer, more versatile products of value, we are well-positioned to meet their expectations.”

Gap Inc. agrees that brands, if they plan to stick it out, need to accommodate this new consumer. “The current situation means consumers are being more thoughtful with how they spend. We are seeing a shift to trusted brands, and those that align with their personal values, which we think is a good thing,” said Kirsty Stevenson, head of environmental and product sustainability. “Brands whose value proposition includes a deeper purpose, we believe, will emerge as winners.”

Gap's Generation Good Campaign
Gap Courtesy

Gap Inc., which has faced its own pandemic-inflicted woes, is staying the course, announcing in June a partnership with Spanish denim mill Tejidos Royo to create denim using a waterless, indigo foam-dyeing technique that slashes water usage by up to 99 percent and produces zero water discharge compared with the traditional sheet-dyeing process. Gap Inc. is also working with Arvind, its longtime sourcing partner, to establish a new water-treatment facility at a denim mill in India that will eliminate the use of freshwater, saving 3 million liters by the end of 2020.

“If anything, the pandemic has reiterated the importance of being prepared for supply-chain disruption and the need to break our dependence on water supplies,” Stevenson said.

Similarly, the concept of circularity, where nothing becomes waste, remains top of mind. The retailer is continuing its work with the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel to separate spandex from used garments and decolorize denim for recycling. “We continue to drive toward progress on our commitments, participate in industry-led initiatives and drive forward key investments that we’ve made in denim circularity and water quality,” Stevenson added.

Spending already limited funds without the expectation of immediate financial returns isn’t easy. Guess CEO Carlos Alberini said that Covid has not only posed a financial challenge but it has also affected morale and the company’s “creative spirit”—more so, in fact, than previous recessions in its nearly 40-year history.

He expects further shrinkage of the denim industry as a result of numerous bankruptcy filings by the likes of G-Star Raw, Lucky Brand and True Religion. The silver lining, however, is that a more consolidated industry allows for greater leverage over the environmental requirements of the denim supply chain, “and therefore the industry overall,” he said.

In Summer ’21, Guess will launch its first “circular, recyclable, transparent” denim. Before that, it expanded its garment take-back and recycling program and create a quarter of its assortment using more sustainable materials and practices. This fall, the brand will submit Science-Based Targets for climate change that will “lead Guess to a low-carbon future.”

“Sustainability remains the pathway forward for Guess, even during the pandemic,” he said. “At Guess, we want to inspire our customers to feel confident and passionate about their style and their future, knowing that we are committed to making this world a better place.”

Despite fears that denim will cede ground to athleisure, eco-friendly denim continues to drive growth, according to predictive data platform Trendalytics, whose March 2020 top trends report noted that online searches for “sustainable denim” and “sustainable jeans” have ticked up 123 percent and 195 percent year over year, respectively.

“Denim remains one of our most sought-after products, and we are more determined than ever to implement best practices when it comes to the processes and materials we use,” said Martijn Hagman, CEO of Tommy Hilfiger Global and PVH Europe. “Through our strategic partnerships with vendors and denim industry leaders, we have remained on-track with our goal to create more sustainable products, and we’ll continue to push industry boundaries to create the most sustainable denim possible.”

This spring, more than half of Tommy Hilfiger styles featured more sustainable elements such as recycled and deadstock materials. The Tommy Jeans collection, Hagman added, is “leading the way,” with more than 80 percent comprising more sustainable styles. “Covid-19 has and will continue to change consumer behavior for the foreseeable future,” he said. “More than ever, consumers are focused on what their products are made of, where they were made and who made them.”

Click here to read more from Rivet magazine.