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Maxine Bédat on Renewable Energy and the Human Side of Denim

Ever Evolving Talks by Calik Denim returned to Amsterdam in April, touching on life after a pandemic, how brands should adapt and respond, and the challenges and opportunities with the metaverse, Web 3.0 and sustainability.

In one of the more denim-centric portions of the event, Maxine Bédat, the director of New Standard Institute, took the audience on the journey of garment production, recounting how she travelled to China, Bangladesh, Texas and more to trace the manufacturing of blue jeans for her book, “Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment.”

Throughout her presentation she told the human story of the garment and raised the question of how to secure a sustainable and fair future for everyone involved denim manufacturing.

“Our jeans tell a really remarkable story—they have been part of the darkest chapters of humanity, but they’ve also been the symbol of freedom around the world,” she said.

Getting ahead of environmental issues and working together are challenges for a supply chain that stretches across the globe, and brands, retailers and consumers having various degrees of interest in sustainability, however.

“Our industry is currently not operating within the bounds of the planet. Of course, the industry is not a monolith,” she said, adding that leaders are actively investing in resources to create a sustainable industry, with chemical management, respect for workers, and net-zero carbon goals.

While various reports state that the global fashion industry represents between 2 and 10 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions, what is certain is if the industry continues with “business as usual,” that figure is only set to increase, Bédat said, noting that rising temperatures fuel a variety of environmental and economic impacts.

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Quoting United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Bédat said unless there are immediate and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade “will be impossible, with catastrophic consequences for people and the planet on which we depend.” Just to stay on pace with the 1.5-degree pathway, Bédat said the apparel sector will have to reduce absolute emissions by 45 percent, which means that the industry—across all tiers of the supply chain—must significantly step up its collective effort now.

“The two single most powerful means to reduce emissions in the sector are shifting to renewable electricity, and eliminating coal in material and product manufacturing,” she said. Bédat went on to say there is a “huge opportunity” to make textile and apparel production more energy efficient, from 15-50 percent per unit depending on the facility, which would also reduce costs in the long run.

“But like the manufacturer that I’d spoken to in China who told me, there needs to be a business case to do so. And this would happen if brands committed to purchasing materials and products for more efficient manufacturers,” she said.

The sector also needs to invest in decarbonizing the electricity-related facets of the value chain, and it needs companies to incentivize suppliers’ transition to this 100 percent renewable energy, she added.

“I love fashion. But fashion must square itself with a planet and society at its breaking point,” she said. “Now’s the time for legislative solutions, to create the guardrails for a modern fashion industry that can thrive within human and planetary bounds; whether we like it or not, they are one and the same.”

Consumers also must do their part by looking for independent certification of organic and recycled products when they make new purchases and by wearing what is already in their closets.

“Love and wear your jeans,” she said. “It’s that easy.”

The fabric’s inherent sturdiness and durability, she added, make it the ideal sustainable product because they are built to last, and they go with literally everything.

“How many times you wear your garment is the single most important factor in the impact of your clothes,” Bédat said.