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Denim’s Most Influential Push Action Over Fluff When it Comes to Sustainability

The denim industry is weighed down by too much product and contradictory messages, according to members of the 2019 Rivet 50.

At Bluezone in Munich, Germany last week, individuals nominated and voted into the 2019 Rivet 50, an index of the most influential people in denim, gathered for a panel and shared their next steps to advance sustainability.

While the denim industry is moving in the right direction toward sustainability, many of the panelists said the next decade will force companies to prove their results with transparent, verified data and clear messaging to the end consumer. Here, they share their ideas.

Just say no

Though he got his start as a designer, the last 15 years of Endrime founder Mohsin Sajid’s career have been rooted in education. The studies, innovations and alternative materials that have emerged over the years are now culminating in realization that the denim industry needs to say no to petrochemicals and polyester. “We can’t keep doing the same things that we’ve been doing, so now it’s about finding solutions,” Sajid said.

The denim industry is weighed down by too much product and contradictory messages, according to members of the 2019 Rivet 50.
Mohsin Sajid Courtesy

Return to nature

Getting back to nature and creating circular models is the future of sustainability, said Alberto Candiani, owner of Candiani Denim Mill. The mill’s latest innovation, biodegradable stretch denim is an example of how denim at the end of its life can be returned to nature. “We need to lower the impact of what we do on the environment, and it might be a little utopian, but I believe the impact can be even positive in the future,” he said. “I’m not really [satisfied] with neutral, I think we can be proactive, but it will take a lot of R&D, technology and vision.”

Made to last

Monsieur-T founder and creative director Tilmann Wröbel said the denim industry needs to reconnect with one of its original value propositions: durability. “When I think about sustainability, I always think about the lifespan of a garment and I think back to the fact that people started wearing jeans because it was more durable than the rest of the garments,” he said. Denim, he added, lost its durable qualities as lightweight fabrics and stretch construction became popular. And these garments, he said, end up in the landfill after a few washings. “The indigo business needs to find its roots in durability.”

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The denim industry is weighed down by too much product and contradictory messages, according to members of the 2019 Rivet 50.
Tilmann Wröbel Courtesy

Avoid landfills

After visiting a landfill and seeing the volume of waste that exists with his own eyes, Andrea Venier, managing director or Officina+39, an Italian textile chemical company, said he became passionate about upcycling. The future of sustainability, he said, relies on a cohesive effort from the supply chain to use denim that is already made as raw materials.

Measure consumption

Garment finishing innovator Tonello is working to simplify and green the denim finishing process through technology. And more importantly, Alice Tonello, the company’s marketing and R&D manager, said the goal is to provide a transparent way for companies to measure the resources each pair of jean consumes.

“So we connected our machines with a software that is going to be watching in real time the water and steam consumption so we can see if we are working in the right direction,” she said. “If we start to measure in a transparent way, we can begin to improve ourselves and to make the process more sustainable.”

The denim industry is weighed down by too much product and contradictory messages, according to members of the 2019 Rivet 50.
Alice Tonello Courtesy

Sustainability fatigue

“We need to find another word for sustainability because it has become a buzzword,” said Bluezone curator Panos Sofianos. His recommendation? Maintenance. The same way cars, appliances and even shoes are repairable, Sofianos urged mills and brands to take ownership of their products and maintain them for longevity.

Combat greenwashing

Sustainability reports, said Boyish Jeans creative director Jordan Nodarse, are the only way to rise above greenwashing and to prove accurate information. Before working with a mill, every brand needs to ask for validated information to relay back to the consumer.

“That’s how you combat greenwashing because then you can give people true information,” Nodarse said. “You can’t talk about ‘radical transparency’ when the only thing you’re doing is pointing the camera at the one corner of a factory that you asked them to paint and sweep to make it look pretty.”

Fair messages

“I hear a lot of bad things about the denim industry, but there’s also not a lot of people are calling it out,” said denim artist Ian Berry. With no group monitoring sustainable claims, Berry said the truth is often hidden behind advertising and other splashy marketing initiatives that companies can pay their way into. And in the process, companies are canceling out one another’s achievements. “All the mills are competing,” he said. “All of the messages are the same.”

However, Berry says the problem is bigger than the denim industry. “And that’s why there needs to be some kind of organization that can even put money into advertising messages that actually say what’s good and what’s bad,” he said.

The denim industry is weighed down by too much product and contradictory messages, according to members of the 2019 Rivet 50.
Ian Berry Courtesy

Diversify retail

With brands offering products that “reduce, reuse and recycle,” Tricia Carey, Lenzing’s director of global business development for denim, urged retailers to highlight these options in their stores. Nordstrom, she said, is a good example of how retailers can offer new jeans, used jeans, renewed jeans and rental programs all under one roof.

“Within that, we can address every aspect of how we can support the reduction of consumption and the amount materials being used, as well as keeping garments in circulation longer,” Carey said.

Social support

“When we talk about sustainability we always focus on the two pillars: environmental and economical, but what about social? We never talk about the social part of it,” said Ebru Ozaydin, senior vice president of sales and marketing of Artistic Milliners. Citing United Nations’ Sustainability Development Goals, which includes a focus on gender equality, she said companies should also look for ways to advance diversity and inclusion. “We have to take a look at the suppliers in our supply chains and make sure we’re working with the right partners,” she said.

Read what the Rivet 50 had to say about innovation here.