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Sustainability, Storytelling Remain at the Heart of Denim’s Evolution

With the COVID-19 crisis forcing many industries to adapt to changing consumer habits, the denim industry has a substantial opportunity on its hands to keep evolving, both for the end consumer and the good of the planet.

As many as 6 billion pairs of denim jeans are produced annually, with the average American owning seven pairs and buying four new pairs per year, according to Dana Thomas, author of “Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes.” Such an immensely high output calls for more sustainable measures to be taken to avoid waste and deliver long-lasting, yet fashionable and comfortable product.

Rivet’s “The Denim Industry’s New Normal, From Concept to Consumer” roundtable dove deep into how the industry can reimagine denim’s place in consumers’ lives, all while highlighting the fabrics, designs and treatments that will open the door for denim’s next iteration.

Sustainability has been a chief imperative for Turkish denim manufacturer Isko, which recently introduced the Isko Vital sustainable protective cotton face mask and developed the R-TWO textile concepts made with a mix or blend of reused cotton. The company produces all of its denim under one roof, and last year teamed up with the Textile Exchange network to maintain an open dialogue with other textile stakeholders and shape and develop more responsible and efficient business models.

“We don’t want to communicate this and talk about sustainability as a trend. It’s not a trend, it’s a must for everyone and it’s also a must for us,” said Selin Akman, head of design, Isko Creative Room. “On the design side, we’re constantly thinking about how we can consume less, and then how we can create designs that are timeless, more durable and more modular. We can use the same garments in different ways.”

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Boyish Jeans is another company aiming for the dual benefit of a fashionable product that promotes circularity, especially as the brand gains more consumers. Jordan Nodarse, founder and creative director of Boyish Jeans, has specific goals in mind for the brand’s Spring 2021 collection: become more plant-based, go plastic free and reduce the amount of petroleum-based chemicals used in the washing and finishing processes.

“We’re trying to replace as much as we can with plant derivatives, getting all the way down to polyurethanes that are now made from natural rubbers and applying that to whatever the seasons are requiring in regards to fits,” Nodarse said. “We focus a lot on using rigid fabrics because they don’t have any plastics inside them and it’s really easy to recycle them. It makes it easy for us to build a product that doesn’t fiber shed.”

The denim industry’s efforts to deliver sustainability still have plenty of room for improvement, particularly when it comes to helping eco-minded consumers seek out and find responsibly sourced products. Thomas said sustainability awareness exists on an individual brand-by-brand basis, but is “as fractured as the supply chain.”

“There’s all sorts of platforms and all sorts of resources,” Thomas said. “There’s a bunch of different movements trying to give you an idea of a ‘Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval’ on items. I was recently talking to somebody about how we can improve on this, by maybe coming up with a standard of labeling like we have seen in food.”

Elena Faleschini, global field marketing manager at Isko, agreed with this sentiment, noting that the challenge is coming together as an industry to provide a globally recognized certification that would be consist across consumers in different regions of the world.

Without a consistent resource—or even definition—for sustainability, manufacturers and brands may not be incentivized to hit any significant sustainability goals, or worse, exaggerate their own sustainability initiatives.

Re-Fashion roundtable speakers discuss the future of denim.
Re-Fashioned roundtable

“When it comes to consumers understanding sustainability, that is the biggest mess,” Nodarse said. “There are so many brands out there that offer so much misinformation, and even go into these stores that they’re mentioning, you know the greenest stores in the world wherever it is and they have these little sections dedicated to sustainable products. We have so many of these brands that are doing things like ‘We used one liter of water for this jean.’ That’s not physically possible unless your fabric has 98 percent virgin cotton in it. At the end of the day, it’s so easy to manipulate consumers by telling them they’re radically transparent.”

While denim industry players continue to figure out how to educate the consumer on sustainability, they also must educate the consumer on the overall value of denim products, especially in today’s overly promotional retail environment whereas apparel retailers and department stores continue to put merchandise under excessive markdowns.

“The denim jean exists with many different price points and yet still have an integrity,” said Keanan Duffty, director of masters in fashion management at Parsons School of Fashion. “That’s something that is really unique to this type of wearable item. What we discuss a lot in the Masters Fashion Management program is actually helping the consumer to understand the value that has gone into designing the garments, the value of the materials and ingredients that go into building [and] making the garments and the innovation that adds to that process too, so all of those elements are so important.”

With that in mind, the storytelling aspect of denim is crucial for its continued success as it evolves due to its history as well as its pervasiveness across a broad spectrum of shoppers, Duffty said.

“Many are looking at this product for some of the same reasons,” Duffty said. “They’re looking at it from what it represents as an icon. They’re looking at what it can do for them in terms of utility. They’re looking at durability, and also they may be looking at longevity. They may be investing in something, inexpensive, or at a luxury price point that actually is a living object. In terms of indigo, it’s a living thing. It lives and it evolves through its lifetime, and its lifetime intersects with the wearer’s lifetime.”

Watch the roundtable, sponsored by Isko, to learn:

  • The top denim trends during Spring/Summer 2020, if COVID-19 hadn’t happened
  • The efforts to make denim products more sustainable, and the fractured state of consumer awareness
  • How the denim industry plans to establish true value as shoppers expect promotions
  • Why luxury drives the seasonless trend and how that affects denim production
  • How “brand bibles” help Boyish Jeans understand and identify its consumer base
  • Why sustainable cotton and organic cotton are not the same thing
  • The “ideal” denim garment and what it is comprised of
  • Whether more denim manufacturers are shortening their time to market

Click here to watch this roundtable now. And watch our other webinars on Apparel Sustainability Strategies and Collaborative Effort.