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How the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals Became Denim’s Instrument of Change

For James Bartle, Outland Denim is basically the first Sustainable Development Goal—end poverty in all its forms everywhere—decked out in blue jeans.

“Poverty is the root cause of so many issues,” said Bartle, who founded the Australian-based B Corp in 2016 to train and employ women who were sexually trafficked but has since “widened its doors” to include employees of “varying backgrounds of vulnerability.”

Bartle says, however, that Outland Denim is “100 percent pretty much for all the SDGs”—which the United Nations Global Compact laid out in 2015 as a kind of turnkey framework for achieving ambitious environmental, economic and social targets—so much so they buttress the foundation of the business in the form of “pillars” such as opportunity, education, training and living wages.

In the past 12 months alone, Outland Denim has conducted 105 hours of training and education—on topics as varied as health, English language, financial management and self-defense—for its cut-and-sew employees in Cambodia. Some 85 percent of its formerly-at-risk workers, Bartle said, reported a reduced level of risk to exploitation after just six months of employment. And when asked about how their life has changed since working for Outland Denim, 57 percent cited financial security and 43 percent said their quality of life was now higher. For its efforts, the Global SDG Awards honored Outland Denim with its 2019 prizes for SDG 1 (no poverty) and SDG 8 (decent working conditions and economic growth).

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Formally known as Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, or the 2030 Agenda, the 17 SDGs replaced the 2000 Millennium Development Goals as a shared roadmap for ensuring all people enjoy peace, prosperity and a healthy planet by 2030. The goals are broken up into 169 specific benchmarks, calibrated to advance issues such as equality, clean water, ocean health and climate action in tangible and measurable ways, and they’re especially relevant to the fashion industry, whose globe-spanning impact leaves a mark on just about every single one.

The denim sector, in particular, has embraced the SDGs as an instrument of change amid growing discourse about the harm and pollution generated by the production of clothes, even as some observers question if progress is stalling or if the goals go far enough—two criticisms fashion firms are no stranger to. Their adoption wasn’t immediate. Neither does it remain complete.

When Tricia Carey, director for global business development, denim, at fiber giant Lenzing, started raising the SDGs in discussions in 2018, “people thought I was talking about a disease!” Awareness-raising drives by the denim supply chain trade show Kingpins Show and the Conscious Fashion Campaign soon made a case for them, however. “There is a progression of the SDGs from awareness to acceptance to target setting,” she noted. Lenzing itself was an early adopter and it can “show a connection to every SDG.” With its low-impact production process and use of post-consumer textile waste as an input, for example, its Tencel x Refibra product is responsible consumption and production (SDG 12) writ large.

Now, an increasing number of companies at all stages of the denim value chain are drawing parallels between their sustainability strategies and the vision for a better world that the SDGs enshrine. Turkish mill Calik Denim says it developed its 2025 sustainability targets to be “in harmony” with the SDGs, which it has referred to as “fundamentals for forming a sustainable business model.” Jeanologia, a Spanish finishing firm, wants to leverage the SDGs to help it “achieve the dehydration and total detoxification of the jean industry.” Pakistan’s Artistic Milliners seeks to “maximize positive impact in order to minimize negative impact by mapping SDGs against the value chain.”

Will widespread adoption of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals stack up to right the denim industry’s wrongs?
Artistic Milliner Courtesy

In the case of Swedish brand Nudie Jeans, which extends the life of its products through repair and resale, SDG 12 (sustainable consumption and production) is “spot on what Nudie Jeans stands for,” said Sandya Lang, its corporate social responsibility manager, adding that SDG 13 (climate action)—emissions reductions, specifically—remains an ongoing area of focus.

Elevate Textiles, which owns Cone Denim, says it “strategically aligned” each of its 10 “Threads of Sustainability” with a related SDG. The company has pledged, for instance, to reduce absolute water usage by 25 percent by 2025 on a 2016 baseline, which would further the goal of clean water and sanitation, or SDG 6. “By mapping the SDGs to our existing sustainability program, we are able to more effectively assess our program and identify and develop actions for any gaps, allowing us a structure to meet our commitments under the UN Global Compact,” said Jimmy Summers, the company’s chief sustainability officer.

Common ground

Favorites for these companies include SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation), SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy) and SDG 13 (climate action), all of which reflect the continuing struggle for cleaner denim production that uses less water, energy and toxic chemicals and generates fewer carbon emissions. SDG 17—partnerships for the goals—is another that is frequently mentioned. Denim, by nature, is a collaborative business, and mills maintain longstanding relationships with standards and multi-stakeholder organizations to share knowledge, align objectives and disseminate best practices. The broad and sometimes imprecise scope of the SDGs, though perceived as a weakness by some, allows them to complement commitments with the UN CEO Water Mandate, the UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action and the ZDHC’s Roadmap to Zero Programme.

Isko, which churns out more than 270 million yards of denim a year, views the SDGs as a tool for honing its focus on the circular economy, a concept the sector is betting on to shake off denim’s reputation for environmental profligacy. Its R-Two concept incorporates reused cotton and post-consumer polyester, increasing resource efficiency and dovetailing with SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production) and SDG 13 (climate action). “By reusing and recycling materials early in the production process, we can have a strong impact in reducing waste and embedding circularity at the very early stage of production,” said Ebru Özküçük Güler, senior corporate social responsibility specialist at Isko.

Some commitments are more explicit than others. Though Levi’s hasn’t characterized its sustainability initiatives in terms of the SDGs, a spokesman said many of the denim juggernaut’s key drives, such as its climate and water action strategies and its worker wellbeing initiative, are “consistent with necessary progress toward them.”

Much of Levi’s and the Levi Strauss Foundation’s grantmaking, he said, has centered on reducing inequalities (SDG 10), while its corporate advocacy has promoted peace, justice and strong institutions (SDG 15) by championing voting, gun violence prevention and racial justice. Levi’s Wellthread, SecondHand and Tailor programs, too, “level up” to bolster SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production) by embedding eco-friendlier fibers and keeping products in circulation—and away from the landfill or incinerator—for longer.

Over at Gap Inc., the SDGs serve as “guiding principles” for the retailer’s sustainability strategy and goals, said Kirsty Stevenson, its head of environmental and product sustainability. The Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy owner, she said, regularly assesses opportunities to advance progress on the SDGs. “When the SDGs were first unveiled, we worked to incorporate them into our materiality analysis with the help of sector-specific guides, and we continue to review these during our annual report writing process to ensure that any goals and programs align with their recommendations,” Stevenson added. “We are also part of a number of external coalitions and industry groups who have also used the SDGs to drive collective action.”

Kontoor Brands, the owner of Lee and Wrangler, made its SDG alignment official. It published its first-ever sustainability report in September, pegging commitments relating to energy, water, worker wellbeing, materials and chemistry to the fulfilment of specific goals such as SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production), SDG 13 (climate action) and SDG 15 (life on land).

Roian Atwood, senior director of global sustainability development at Kontoor Brands, described the process of establishing the targets as “somewhat inward-outward,” with the company soliciting input from its nonprofit stakeholders about its most material issues before it settled on the 10 SDGs where it could have the biggest impact. The SDGs, though useful as a high-level guidance and a vehicle for global alignment, are not a plug-and-play solution, however.

“In order to make meaningful progress toward the goals, we must customize them to our business operations, develop the right systems for monitoring and management and build partnerships to drive change,” Atwood said.

Other companies agree. Isko says it has accelerated the timelines of most targets, such as the promotion of cleaner water use (SDG 6) and enhancing labor rights (SDG 8), to ramp up their ambition and achieve progress before 2025. Nudie Jeans uses the SDGs to identify and plug up gaps in its sustainability plan, which was already being rolled out when the goals were introduced. Elevate Textiles freely avails itself of the UN Global Compact’s tools, guidance and webinars, available only to signatories, to help it sharpen its approach to SDG implementation.

Indeed, even world-quaking disruptions like the pandemic have done little to budge these goals—and in certain cases, like that of Kontoor, has spurred companies to commit to them anew. Denim brands and suppliers say they realize Covid-19 will eventually pass but consumers’ calls for products that align with their social and environmental values will only grow more insistent. “Any business that is not taking the SDGs into account will probably not be around in a few decades’ time,” said Isko’s Güler.

Learning curve

Still, there is “some way ahead” until the SDGS are widely adopted by the sector, said Miguel Sanchez, technology leader at Kingpins Show, which was named a UN partner in March. As a board member of the trade show’s nonprofit Transformers Foundation, Sanchez has been working to coax more denim companies to fold the SDGs models. Instead of a garment that’s pilloried for being wasteful and polluting, jeans could be reframed as a circular, ecological and socially sound choice for consumers. “We would like denim to be a reference for other industries in the textile, fashion and other business segments,” he said.

Artistic Milliners senior vice president Ebru Ozaydin cautions of the risk of “SDG washing,” which is to say companies that simply wield the SDG label in lieu of developing time-bound and measurable action plans. “We believe business actions determine the success of SDGs and the corporate strategy should be aligning with them,” she said.

Warnings are also sounding about the SDGs losing ground in their so-called “Decade of Action.” In June, a report commissioned by the UN Global Compact found that while 84 percent of its signatories are tackling the SDGs, only 36 percent are incorporating them into their core business. Companies are also limiting the scope of the SDGs by applying them to their own operations. To wit, though more than half (57 percent) of companies are measuring their impact in relation to the SDGs, “very few” extend the same diligence to suppliers (13 percent), raw materials (10 percent) and into product use (10 percent). Public enthusiasm for the SDGs has slipped, too. Only 29 per cent of companies now publicly advocate the importance of action in relation to the SDGs, down from 53 percent in 2019.

A report by Washington, D.C., think tank Social Progress Imperative, published in September, concluded that the world will not achieve the SDGs until at least 2082 at its current pace—and that’s without accounting for the post-coronavirus economic scramble, which could force their fulfillment to 2092 at the earliest, or 60 years behind schedule. A lack of legislation or legally binding agreements—the SDGs are strictly voluntary and the UN Global Compact is non-enforceable—could be to blame.

“In many countries, like in Sweden, we still do not have mandatory labor laws for the global supply chain yet,” said Lang from Nudie Jeans. “This would probably be needed to accelerate the work. For now, all brands can do is voluntarily report and integrate the SDGs, and therefore I believe that the work at some companies falls behind.”

Carey of Lenzing sees, however, an opportunity in a “pandemic pause” that could turn the “Decade of Action” into “The Great Reset.” While she understands that the learning curves for denim businesses are steep and their challenges manifold, it’s crucial for risk-shy firms to “think beyond their usual processes, connect with supply network and support investments in industry to transform.” A vision without a plan, she added, is “just a dream.” It doesn’t have to be a Herculean task, either. In 2018, Textile Exchange and audit and tax firm KPMG identified an “SDG engagement framework” that homes in on eight SDGs where the apparel and textile industry can produce the most enduring results. For brands and manufacturers that don’t know where to begin, or feel stuck in a rut, it offers practical guidance to help them prioritize and realize the goals.

“We can guess that nobody thought that the SDGs were going to be an easy path to follow,” Kingpins’s Sanchez said. “Goals were set with the best spirit and meant to be realistically achievable. However, the degree of complexity, as well as a certain lack of push by relevant authorities, involved organizations and industry players caused the progress not to be at the level of expectations.” For the SDGs to be successful, everyone in the supply chain needs to be onboard with a unified plan of attack, both brands and suppliers agree. Isolated and piecemeal approaches that don’t result in fundamental changes won’t cut it.

Still, Sanchez remains hopeful. “The SDGs still are, and will be, a great guide to change things for good,” he said. “Once again, lives and life conditions are at stake. It is about all of us on this planet. I do myself like the sentence “failure is not an option.

This article appears in Rivet’s circularity report “In the Round.” Click here to download the full report.