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Denim Brands and Suppliers Team Up for Sustainable Alternatives

Sweatshirts made with banana and pineapple leaf fibers were just the start of Pangaia’s exploratory approach to innovating fabrics intended for everyday fashion. The sustainability-focused materials science and apparel company introduced its first denim collection last fall made in partnership with former Levi’s designer and Unspun advisor Jonathan Cheung. True to form, the collection was made with a first-of-its-kind fabric: a 13-ounce, 92 percent organic cotton and 18 percent Himalayan nettle blend woven at low speeds on Candiani Denim’s shuttle loom.

The use of Himalayan nettle marked the first time that selvedge denim has been made with fiber, maintaining Pangaia’s mission to develop alternatives to “overproduced, resource-intensive materials such as cotton.” The company had looked at hemp and agriculture waste fibers for denim, but nettle showed the greatest potential. Durable and sustainable, the fiber ticked off Pangaia’s boxes. Additionally, the linguini-shaped fiber’s hollow core provides thermoregulating properties.

Denim brands—be it small-yet-disruptive labels like Pangaia, or category-leading names like Levi’s and Wrangler—are increasingly showing up to support (and sometimes create) emerging technologies that have the potential to benefit the greater industry. Waiting for a tested and proven eco-alternative solution to be shopped around the market doesn’t cut it anymore for brands with ambitious long-term sustainability goals to work toward. Brands are sending their designers, sustainability officers and R&D teams into the labs to accelerate innovations.

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“We believe interest shown by a leading brand can help catapult a technology forward by providing endorsement and support for ideas that may need a catalyst,” said Dhruv Agarwal, Kontoor Brands senior director of innovation, sustainability and product development.

Along with applying product and market knowledge, brands serve as guides for non-native denim firms faced with navigating the category’s unique nuances like indigo-dyeing, washing and finishing. “For example, during the R&D and testing process, we can support the fine-tuning of new technologies to optimize them for denim applications,” Agarwal said. “We can also provide empirical data and analytic support to assess trade-offs and iterate technical designs to improve performance. In many cases, we have found that our involvement can make the difference between an innovation making it to the market versus gathering dust on a laboratory shelf.”

In Pangaia’s case, the London-based company teamed with Cheung, who is credited with galvanizing Levi’s comeback after two decades of decline, to work on producing a nettle fabric that is sustainable, durable and attractive. With the help of Candiani Denim owner Alberto Candiani, he landed on a fabric that he said is widely applicable to different types of garments and has a layer of softness to counteract the nettle fiber’s toughness.

Developing the collection during covid came with “massive amounts of challenges,” but it also incentivized stakeholders to work differently. The first samples were rendered in 3D before the team moved into physical fittings, most of which took place over Zoom. “This is an opportunity for disruption, and so you can try out new things. The status quo is interrupted, so why not try something new,” said Dr. Amanda Parkes, Pangaia chief innovation officer.

As with all new innovations, working with the nettle blend was not without its trials and tribulations. Though it has the benefit of being an “extraordinarily strong” fiber, nettle does not have the same flexibility of cotton, which presents challenges during the weaving process. Cheung said he wouldn’t be surprised if there were still “bits of broken machinery” on Candiani’s floor.

“Trial and error are an essential part of R&D,” Candiani added. “Of course, you don’t want to make too many mistakes, but you have to learn and adjust the recipe when they occur. What keeps us motivated is the reach of true circularity, thanks to products and processes that may generate a positive impact on the environment.”

Candiani is well-versed in creating new sustainable technologies with the assistance of brands. The Milanese mill linked with long-term partner Dutch label Denham when it launched its patented biodegradable Coreva Stretch technology. The mill created the denim from organic cotton wrapped around a natural rubber core. By replacing the common synthetic and petrol-based elastomers with a new, custom-engineered component, Candiani landed on biodegradable stretch denim fabric without compromised elasticity and recovery properties.

“What keeps us motivated is the reach of true circularity, thanks to products and processes that may generate a positive impact on the environment.” —Alberto Candiani,  Candiani Denim

Founder Jason Denham described the three-part process to bring the first Coreva stretch jeans to market, which he did in November 2019. “First, Candiani shared the concept with us which we loved,” he said. “Second, Candiani used their own technical expertise to build a material that looks good, performs and passes all [their strict standards]. Third, the Denham team tested the fabric in garment form for shrinkage control, sewing control and laundry aesthetic and touch.”

While creative collaborations are efficient in generating instant bursts of buzz, collaborations like the one between Denham and Candiani are critical in scaling sustainable innovations. For Denham, he said the work is important yet comes easy because the two companies “share the same values and responsibility to make innovative, beautiful, quality, ethical denim.”

Up next, Denham said he is busy working with Chinese mill Advance Denim to develop a line called Zero Denim that addresses challenges in cotton production. “In the future, all cars will be produced without engines. It’s not inconceivable that jeans will not have cotton. We are always open to innovate and move forward,” he said.

“We have long standing relationships with all our mills and vendors,” Denham added. “We are in this together, we grow together.”

Wrangler Infinna
Kontoor Brands-owned Wrangler is among those using the regenerated fiber Infinna in some collections. Courtesy

Infinna, a recyclable virgin-quality fiber that’s created from cotton-rich textile waste, received a helping hand from a denim giant before it was even a business.

Wrangler’s first denim products made with Infinna fiber launched in the European market last fall, but the road to get there began in 2015 when the brand’s innovation team partnered with researchers at VTT Technical Research Centre in Espoo, Finland to evaluate and refine the technology at an early stage. “We quickly realized the potential for this new fiber and worked to support its advancement,” Agarwal said.

“The decision to identify and support a technology isn’t an easy process. It often takes a lot of patience and requires a collaborative approach.” —Dhruv Agarwal, Kontoor Brands

A company eventually was formed around the technology and the VTT scientists who led the development efforts, resulting in the creation of the Infinited Fiber Company. Wrangler went on to complete preliminary trials on Infinna fabrics, providing the Infinited Fiber team with a “clear roadmap” of what a successful regenerated and recycled fiber needed to look like and ensuring that the fiber’s technical innovation was balanced with commercial viability. Throughout this process, Wrangler identified key learnings that allowed the brand to further fine-tune the fiber quality before it launched in the Fall 2021 collection as jeans and jackets made with 30 percent Infinna and 70 percent cotton blended fabric.

“At Kontoor, we are constantly looking for new technologies that can improve and enhance our products and processes in ways that address the evolving needs of our consumers and advance our business within our framework of people, products, planet,” Agarwal said.

While a company like Kontoor can develop technologies internally, Agarwal points out that it also has the flexibility to support and draw upon external sources of innovation. “This means we actively monitor new innovations from idea inception through commercial-ready solutions to identify those that can have a positive impact on our business,” he said.

Factors that make one technology standout over another include technical feasibility, cost and its ability to deliver meaningful benefits. “The decision to identify and support a technology isn’t an easy process. It often takes a lot of patience and requires a collaborative approach,” Agarwal said. “When we do decide to support an emerging technology—whether internal or external—we remain focused on maximizing its potential for positive impact.”

Color match

Fabrics are just one piece of the puzzle. Jeans wouldn’t be the icon they are without the signature indigo hue and via collaborations heritage brands are stepping up to the plate to ensure it has a sustainable future.

In 2021, Levi Strauss & Co. (LS&Co.) forged a partnership with the Dutch accelerator Fashion for Good to support the development of sustainable and circular innovation. Its first project is a collaboration with U.S. indigo producer Stony Creek Colors to scale the use of IndiGold dye, the firm’s plant-based, pre-reduced indigo.

Founded by Sarah Bellos in 2012, Stony Creek Colors champions traceable plant-based dyes as an alternative to the petroleum-derived synthetic indigo that has soaked and polluted the industry for decades. IndiGold can be integrated into an indigo pre-reduction system by using hydrogen as the reduction agent, thereby eliminating harmful byproducts from both the pre-reduction and the dyeing process.

The company joined Fashion for Good’s accelerator program in March 2021, following a Series B financing round totaling more than $9 million.

The pilot, however, is not Stony Creek’s first touch point with the denim giant.

It is a continuation of LS&Co.’s existing work with Stony Creek Colors and its “exploration of the potential of plant-based dyes.” Levi’s WellThread collection, which serves as a platform for the brand’s R&D lab’s sustainable innovations, has previously used Stony Creek’s plant-based dyes. The Fall/Winter 2021 collection, for example, featured vibrant natural indigo denim made with organic cotton and cottonized hemp fabrics by Cone Denim—one of Stony Creek’s earliest collaborators.

What is new is how through the pilot LS&Co. brings its nearly 150-years of experience and technical know-how in jeans to the table, while Stony Creek provides its IndiGold indigo dye to select denim mills to run performance trials with different denim dyeing systems. The companies aim to unlock additional key learnings around shade application and other efficiencies and share the goal to deliver additional garments dyed with IndiGold on the market by late 2022 and early 2023.

“This is a great opportunity to expand that work and more fully realize the potential of this innovation,” said Jeffrey Hogue, LS&Co.’s chief sustainability officer.

The technology behind Wrangler’s game changing Indigood fabrics also didn’t just land on the company’s doorstep. The transformative foam-dyeing process, which uses at least 90 percent less water compared to conventional methods and removes chemical substances almost entirely from the dyeing process, was developed in collaboration with Gaston Systems Inc., Texas Tech University and Indigo Mill Designs with early-stage funding for development provided by Wrangler and Walmart. The process allows fabric mills to produce smaller quantities, when desired, than with conventional processes. Smaller fabric runs allow for greater design and marketing flexibility in the denim industry.

It was introduced in the market exclusively by Tejidos Royo at the April 2018 Kingpins show in Amsterdam. Wrangler released the first collection made with the technique in June 2019, a range of men’s and women’s indigo jeans, jacket and shirting offered in two washes. The Spanish mill went on to launch the same technology for black denim called Dry Black in 2020.

“By actively engaging during the development process of this technology, we believe Kontoor brought a sense of urgency and purpose to the table,” Agarwal said. “Not only did we invest meaningful capital to advance foam dyeing technology, but we also brought our technical expertise to support the researchers and engineers working to bring this technology to the market. Kontoor’s commercial size and strong commitment to foam dyeing technology provided both the validation and scale we believe was needed during the development process to ensure its ultimate success.”

The innovation landed Tejidos Royo accolades from the European Commission and it went on to be the launching pad for Wrangler’s Indigood program, an initiative that targets water savings during the fabric construction phase of the apparel supply chain. The program expanded in 2021 to include any water savings technology in apparel fabric production that uses at least 90 percent less water than conventional fabric production. Kontoor Brands also added certification component last fall called the Indigood Facility Certification. Textile manufacturing facilities using 90 percent less freshwater than conventional fabric production may qualify for full certification.

Programs and the technologies that inspire then, like Indigood, are having a positive effect. As of March 2021, Kontoor Brands has saved more than 8 billion liters of waters through such initiatives.

The wheels are always turning at Kontoor. In addition to other “exciting partnerships in the pipeline,” Agarwal said Kontoor is exploring the potential of graphene, an extremely lightweight and strong material that can conduct energy and enhance thermal dynamics and connect to smart technology. “We believe graphene could  help revolutionize the apparel market,”  he said.

The company is also working to bring traceability and scale to the textile-grade cottonized hemp grown and processed in the United States through a partnership with Dallas-based Panda Biotech. Industrial hemp is a regenerative crop due to its ability to grow with little water, minimal-to-no pesticides and herbicides, production of a high per acre fiber yield, and absorption of more carbon dioxide per acre than any forest or commercial crop.

“While it’s still early days in the effort to commercialize and develop textile products with hemp in the Americas, we see real potential in this fiber as a complement to traditional cotton,” Agarwal said.

Though the innovation behind each collaboration varies, they share a common goal to make all stakeholders—from the technology company, brand, end consumer and Mother Nature—winners.

“For researchers and startup companies, such close collaboration can draw-in outside capital and technical resources, fill in crucial data gaps during the development process, and provide important commercial validation and support,” Agarwal said. “For Kontoor, these tightly coordinated collaborations offer an important opportunity for us to provide valuable input during development to iterate and refine the technology in ways which better positions our products for commercial success. “We view this level of collaboration as enabling both an acceleration of innovation and resulting in a better product,” he said.

This article ran in Sourcing Journal’s 2022 Sustainability Report: The Road to 2030. To read the complete report, click here