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Year in Review: Denim Brands Embraced Sustainable Alternatives

As we settle into the new year, our Sourcing Summit Companion Report looks ahead at ways to optimize processes and performance.

As brands continue to learn more about sustainability, their collections reflect this eco-friendly effort. In 2021, a number of denim companies launched what they consider to be their most sustainable collections to date, featuring alternative fibers, recycled materials and water- and energy-saving processes.

At the beginning of the year, H&M Group-owned brand Cos debuted a collection of men’s and women’s denim made solely of GRS- or RCS-certified recycled or GOTS- or OCS-certified organic cotton. Each piece is finished with rivet-free detailing to facilitate recycling at the end of its lifecycle. The assortment includes both raw indigo and ecru fabrics, and came on the heels of H&M Group’s other circular efforts, including the launch of Resell, a platform that allows customers to buy and sell their used Cos apparel, as well as Restore, a line of repaired merchandise.

A label known for its upcycled denim, EB Denim released its first original jean after founder Elena Bonvicini said she felt limited by reworking vintage denim. Though she said new jeans can never be as sustainable as vintage denim, she strived to make the product as low-impact as possible. It uses a fabric made with an organic cotton and recycled cotton blend, along with Artistic Milliners’ innovative Crystal Clear indigo dyeing process, which employs an organic fixing agent that requires no salt and 70 percent fewer chemicals than conventional indigo dyeing methods. It also leverages recycled trims and hardware based on a dipping process versus the traditional electroplating approach, as well as reclaimed leather patches, and maintains a local supply chain for further sustainability.

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Dutch denim brand Denham debuted its first line of jeans made with post-consumer recycled (PCR) cotton sourced from previously worn Denham jeans. The fabric is made of 21 percent recycled cotton, 65 percent organic cotton and 14 percent conventional cotton. The collection was two years in the making, as Denham launched its “Bring Back Your Denham Jeans” initiative in 2019 calling on consumers to bring in their used Denham jeans. Hundreds of customers rose to the challenge and contributed their denim, from which the highest-quality fibers were woven into new yarns to make new denim. The remainder was recycled into wall and sound insulation.

Los Angeles-based denim brand Triarchy debuted a collection with model Josephine Skriver as the face of the campaign. But for denim heads, the most exciting part of the line was the sustainable fabric it featured. Turkish mill Bossa developed the fabric, which centers on Naia Renew, a cellulosic staple fiber developed by global specialty materials provider Eastman. Sourced from 60 percent wood pulp and 40 percent recycled waste plastics, the quick-drying fiber offers inherent softness and blends well with other eco-friendly materials such as lyocell, modal and recycled polyester. The brand has an exclusive on the fabric for one year, after which Bossa will open it up to other denim labels.

In 2021, a number of denim brands launched what they considered to be their most sustainable collections to date.
Triarchy x Josephine Skriver Courtesy

In November, Frame debuted its first range of biodegradable jeans featuring fabrics from Italian denim mill Candiani, which uses plant-based Coreva Stretch Technology that wraps organic cotton around a natural rubber core. By replacing the common synthetic and petrol-based elastomers—which are detrimental to the environment—with a natural component, the fabric is able to maintain its sustainable qualities without sacrificing its elasticity and recovery properties. Jeans are available in three different fabrications—rigid 727, comfort stretch 785 and super stretch 778—and its stretch styles include varying amounts of Roica V550, a yarn that breaks down in a fraction of the time that conventional yarn needs.

Jeans Redesign

Though the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Jeans Redesign program launched in 2019, several brands debuted their first collections in line with the circularity requirements this year.

Tommy Hilfiger launched a collection of seven men’s and women’s garments according to the guidelines, featuring jeans made with 100 percent organic cotton fabric, metal zippers with detachable buttons, bartacks instead of metal rivets and denim back patches in place of leather. Each piece features wash and care instructions on the pockets, along with advice on how to repair, donate or recycle the product after use.

PVH Europe signed the Denim Deal, a circular Dutch initiative that aims to increase the use of recycled fibers in the denim industry.
Tommy Jeans Courtesy

In May, American Eagle debuted its AE x Jeans Redesign collection, which abides by the initiative’s guidelines for recyclable, durable denim. Consisting of four jeans styles—two mom jean fits for women and two slim jean styles for men—the range is made of 100 percent organic cotton with easy-to-remove hardware. The Jeans Redesign adoption furthers the sustainability goals American Eagle outlined in 2019.

Gap also debuted its first venture into Jeans Redesign territory with five women’s denim styles derived from natural fibers. Part of Gap Inc.’s Washwell program—a denim washing process that uses 20 percent less water than conventional processes—garments also use chemicals that abide by the ZDHC guidelines and include removable hardware for easier end-of-life recycling.

Upcycled denim brand Re/Done introduced its Jeans Redesign collection in October with three ’70s-inspired silhouettes, including an ultra-high-rise wide-leg jean, a cropped high-rise stove pipe jean and a high-rise creased bootcut jean. All jeans are made of responsibly sourced 100 percent organic cotton, recycled hardware, and bio-based patches, and include a hangtag with a QR code that gives consumers a full traceability report documenting each product’s lifecycle. Items are shipped using recycled, oxo-biodegradable poly bags.

One of the more unlikely candidates for circularity, Irish fast fashion brand Primark also tried its hand at a Jeans Redesign collection. The range includes a men’s straight fit jean, a women’s straight fit jean, a kids’ tapered jean and an adult denim jacket. Jackets are made from 80 percent organic cotton and 20 percent recycled cotton, and jeans incorporate 70 percent organic cotton, 29 percent recycled cotton and 1 percent elastane.

Sustainable dyes

Dyes are becoming an increasing point of focus for brands in recent months, as society becomes more aware of the environmental and social dangers of harmful chemical usage.

Sustainable denim brand Mud Jeans debuted its Undyed collection, a range of existing styles made with fabrics consisting of 60 percent organic cotton and 40 percent recycled denim. No new dye is added to the process—instead, the recycled denim and organic cotton fibers come together to produce a unique gray-blue shade. By skipping the dyeing process—and, in turn, the wash process—the brand is able to use 92 percent less water per pair compared to the industry standard, and only consume 6.12 kg of CO2, 74 percent less than traditional methods.

In the spring, H&M shifted its focus to sustainable dyes for its Innovation Stories, a series of capsules collectively aiming to promote the use of sustainable materials, technology and production processes across the garment industry. The company’s “Color Story” includes women’s garments made using techniques such as biotechnology, plant-based pigments and digital textile printing, resulting in warm shades of yellow and orange, deep indigos and blushing pinks, as well as on-trend tie-dye prints.

Hennes and Mauritz's new Color Story magnifies what can be achieved with biotechnology, plant-based pigments and digital textile printing.
H&M Color Story Courtesy

The collection marked the industry debut of Colorifix, a U.K. biotech company that uses a natural, biological process to produce and fix pigments onto textiles. It also featured We aRe SpinDye, a recycled polyester that is pigmented before being extracted into yarn, using 75 percent less water during the entire coloring process and consuming 90 percent less chemicals.

In September, Levi’s Wellthread—the heritage denim brand’s laboratory for sustainable innovation—launched a collection made with organic cotton and cottonized hemp fabrics dyed with a range of sustainable, plant-based dye systems from Stony Creek Colors. The Springfield, Tenn.-based company’s technology supplies the market with indigo plant-based color, enabling a transition from synthetic, petroleum-based processes that rely on toxic chemicals. T-shirts and sweatshirts in the collection are dyed with plant-based colors that use sound, rather than chemistry, to affix pigment molecules to textile fibers. The sonic dye application method uses less water than traditional methods, and the plant-derived colors reduce the need for synthetic chemistry.