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Just How Sustainable Is Your Denim Jacket?

With the fall season on the horizon, denim jackets are about to have their heyday—and while they’re an inherently sustainable garment as an investment piece that will transcend years to come, not all are created equal.

Fashion trend forecasting firm Heuritech analyzed the environmental impact of a standard denim jacket, interchanging details such as fiber selection and production region to show how the seemingly smallest tweaks can reduce the garment’s impact by up to 92 percent.

By analyzing life cycle assessment data across all production stages—cotton fiber production, spinning, dyeing, weaving, manufacturing, fading, laundry and transportation—the firm found that a denim jacket made with conventional cotton from India and produced in Asia produces approximately 27.7 kg CO2, or the equivalent of traveling 177 miles by car.

It also produces 385.6 megajoules of energy resource use, or the equivalent of 13 hours of indoor heating, and 11.7 grams of phosphorus equivalent of freshwater eutrophication equal to 12 pounds of seaweed. Eutrophication refers to nutrients accumulating in a body of water. Excessive nutrients foster algae growth and threatens organisms living in the water.

The firm ran the same numbers on a denim jacket produced in Asia, but this time swapped out conventional cotton for organic cotton sourced from India, and found an 11 percent savings in CO2, a 50 percent savings in freshwater eutrophication and 11 percent savings in energy resource use.

The switch to organic cotton has been a subject of focus for years as the denim industry looks for ways to reduce its environmental impact. It’s been established that organic cotton has a reduced potential for global warming, acidification (such as acid rain), and soil erosion compared to conventional cotton. However, there’s currently not enough organic cotton to meet the spike in demand. The sustainable alternative accounted for less than 1 percent of the global cotton harvest in the 2019-20 crop year, according to Textile Exchange’s 2020 Organic Cotton Market Report. Certain groups, including Milliner Organic, which Pakistan-based denim mill Artistic Milliners launched alongside environmental nonprofit World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) Pakistan and the Government of Baluchistan, are committed to increasing the supply to make for a more sustainable denim industry.

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But it’s not just a matter of organic versus conventional cotton. The Heuritech report also pointed to a supply chain’s location as a main driver of sustainable savings. By swapping Asia-based production with Europe-based production, a denim jacket made with organic cotton sourced from Turkey was found to save 36 percent CO2, 92 percent freshwater eutrophication and 50 percent energy resource use.

As Asia currently dominates the textile sector, and transportation can account for anywhere from 5,200 miles to 19,000 miles depending on the supply chain, according to the report, working with more local partners is crucial.

Nearshoring is becoming an increasingly popular business strategy, specifically in the Western Hemisphere as imports from Mexico increased 55.42 percent to $352.94 million in the first half of 2021, according to the Commerce Department’s Office of Textiles & Apparel (OTEXA). Shipments from Nicaragua also rose 39.54 percent in the period to $64.21 million, as Colombia’s imports increased 3.97 percent to $14.44 million and Guatemala’s rose 3.84 percent to $11.79 million.

Sourcing experts at last month’s Magic trade show noted a more sustainable sourcing shift in which smaller, more local customers sold through the Internet during the pandemic. Some projected that it will continue for years to come.