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Year in Review: Sustainability Highlights Across the Denim Supply Chain

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

As the world continued to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic in 2021, the spotlight shifted to supply chains in flux. Denim brands and suppliers alike honed in on production and sourcing methods, identifying areas in need of improvement. The year 2021 saw sustainable strides throughout the denim supply chain that have the potential to make a significant environmental impact at scale.

Fibers

The Lenzing Group debuted a sustainable fiber designed to scatter light and permanently diminish sheen in denim. In October, it introduced matte Tencel branded lyocell fibers that answered partners’ call for less shiny fabric. Made with a resource-efficient closed-loop production process, the fiber is fully traceable, and is a combined effort of global mill partners Advance Denim from China, Pakistan’s Artistic Fabric Mills Pvt. Ltd., Arvind Limited and KG Denim Limited from India, Turkey’s Kipas Denim, Panther Denim/Tat Fung from China and Spain’s Textil Santanderina.

In September, the Lyrca Company introduced Lycra Adaptiv, a stretch offering that provides a better fit for various lifestyles, movements and different body types. The material is made from a revolutionary polymer that adapts to bodies in motion and at rest. The fabric’s durability and ability to accommodate fluctuating sizes means products will have a longer shelf life.

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The denim supply chain experienced a number of sustainable innovations in 2021 related to chemicals, trims, fibers and more.
Lycra Adaptiv Courtesy

Traceability

A recent report from Cotton Diaries, an organization dedicated to making cotton supply chains more sustainable, highlighted that 69 percent of denim brands don’t know their cotton’s origins. In light of this figure, and with greenwashing rampant in the denim industry, tracing solutions are crucial to holding companies accountable for their claims.

In 2021, companies made strides in this area, implementing solutions like FibreTrace, which recently earned a Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certification for its luminescent pigment, confirming its organic status. The pigmented fibers are mixed into cotton fibers so the resulting fabric can be scanned throughout the supply chain to capture data, which consumers can later access by scanning a QR code or alternative method based on the brand’s choosing. The technology is used by Nobody Denim, Reformation, 7 For All Mankind and others.

In September, FibreTrace was one of the partners included in the Higg traceability program, a global collaboration that helps brands track the hidden impacts within their manufacturing processes, ensure fiber integrity and understand, communicate and accelerate product sustainability.

In March, Advance Denim, one of China’s largest denim manufacturers, joined the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, a system that helps assure mills and manufacturers that their cotton is sustainably grown. The Trust Protocol is on the Textile Exchange’s list of 36 preferred fibers and materials from which more than 170 participating brands and retailers can select as part of Textile Exchange’s Material Change Index program. Advance Denim joins over 200 other mills and manufacturers as members.

Pakistan-based vertically integrated manufacturer Soorty partnered with Green Story, a supply chain sustainability analysis platform, for an extensive life cycle analysis of two garments with differentiated raw materials and garment processes. The platform uses the global standard of Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) methodology with data sourced from accredited partners to measure the impact of production processes. It then brings them together with easy-to-understand visuals to enhance the customer experience and highlight Soorty’s green choices. The partnership encourages consumers to buy more consciously.

Fabrics

Turkish denim mill Calik Denim is gearing up for a more sustainable 2023 by introducing E-Last, which aims to streamline the sampling process by providing better fabric consistency throughout its products. The concept virtually eliminates weft shrinkage, which lets garment makers more easily and consistently lay a template, cut-sew and wash, resulting in a more streamlined sampling process.

The denim supply chain experienced a number of sustainable innovations in 2021 related to chemicals, trims, fibers and more.
Calik E-Last Courtesy

Naveena Denim mill’s Holistic Denim was also a notable fabric innovation of 2021. The range answers new consumer demands for responsible fibers, with a combination of organic cotton, hemp, Tencel, CiCLO and more with Horizon, its dyeing and finishing technology that uses 80 percent less water and 40 percent less energy while cutting steam in half compared to conventional processes.

The mill also made headlines when it partnered with MYR, a digital portal that connects all of the players in the denim supply chain, to develop a gaming component to product development. Using MYR’s prototyping software, customers can view and manipulate the mill’s entire fabric collection. The software syncs with Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) systems so all departments and external suppliers can work from the same file.

Spanish textile manufacturer Tejidos Royo introduced ReBoot, a line of prepared for dyeing (PFD) fabrics made from recycled pre-consumer fibers that meet the BCI and Global Recycled Standard requirements. The technology allows for clean colors in both light and dark tones.

Hemp is another fiber proving to be popular in 20201, as Chinese denim mill Prosperity recently debuted an organic hemp denim fabric dyed with Dystar’s pre-reduced indigo. Similarly, Pakistan-based denim mill Kassim, which recently established its own indigo manufacturing plant powered by solar energy to help bypass supply chain disruptions and speed up and control production, also introduced fabrics made with recycled modal, Tencel x Refibra and hemp sourced from France.

Washing and Finishing

Soorty developed Zero Stone, a stonewashing method that produces vintage-inspired wash effects without the use of pumice stones, which must be repeatedly replaced and create harmful sludge in wastewater. By using a combination of certified chemicals and enzymes, the method minimally uses natural resources and results in positive effluent discharge while increasing production speed and preventing fabric from tearing during laundering. Compared to conventional wash methods, the process is reported to consume 43 percent less water, 18 percent less energy, 19 percent fewer chemicals, and 5 percent less worker impact.

Los Angeles-based denim laundry Star Fades International (SFI) introduced a sustainably washed and dyed denim capsule collection named “Natural Selection,” which spans 19 looks for men and women. The range employs SFI’s sustainable finishing techniques combined with Pakistan-based denim mill Artistic Milliners’ fabrics made with organic cotton, post-industrial waste cotton and post-consumer waste cotton. The collection features fabric dyed with Pure Color dyes made from minerals, rocks and sand, and applied with a ZDHC/GreenScreen-certified sustainable mordant.

The denim supply chain experienced a number of sustainable innovations in 2021 related to chemicals, trims, fibers and more.
SFI Natural Selection Courtesy

Laser finishing was a top priority for Mexican mill Global Denim, which worked with Spanish technology company Jeanologia to develop an eight-piece capsule collection highlighting the method’s capabilities. The collection included a range of denim fabrics, from rigid to stretch, all treated with laser finishing to guide the Mexican denim market in advancing how it produces jeans.

Earlier this winter, garment finishing technology firm Tonello partnered with Italian mill Candiani Denim to develop O-Zone, a method for applying sustainable ozone processes to jeans. The process allows designers to quickly test and verify finished results, making it ideal for small productions, customization and for experimenting with new design concepts directly on the garment. Items are placed inside a cabinet and treated with ozone through a flexible and fast process controlled by a touch screen. Users can set the desired parameters to achieve sun-faded looks, localized discoloration or ombre effects.

Trims

Some of the greatest environmental savings of 2021 can be traced back to the smallest products. In July, global trims supplier YKK debuted waterproof technology for zippers in partnership with sustainable textile innovation company Green Theme Technologies (GTT) that avoids many of the harmful chemicals used in similar processes. The trims supplier signed a licensing agreement that allows it to use GTT’s water-free and non-toxic Empel solution on its products.

Internally, YKK made a number of changes, including installing more efficient equipment in its facilities, which led it to achieve a 20 percent reduction in Scope 1 (direct emissions) and Scope 2 (indirect emissions) and a 36 percent reduction in Scope 3 (emissions from assets not owned or controlled by the reporting organization) from a 2018 baseline. Its greenhouse gas emissions were reduced in line with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C target, as certified by the United Nations’ Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi). The company published a 52-page sustainability report detailing this and other progress that puts it on track to achieving its longer-term sustainability targets.

Other trims companies are incorporating alternative materials that offer more sustainable benefits. Turkey-based trims maker Turteks Etiket plays with leather and dye alternatives sourced from organic materials, including patches made from olive waste, cactus leaves and corn-based PU, as well as scraps of denim fabric sourced from its clients. Similarly, French trims company Dorlet debuted Global Recycled Standard (GRS) materials in a recent collection, which it says will be the “heart” of its next line.

Chemicals

In August, Italy-based chemicals provider Officina+39 became a Bluesign partner, joining a network of environmentally focused stakeholders committed to a better future. Considered one of the industry’s strictest standards for environmental health and textile manufacturing, the Bluesign System aims to remove harmful substances from the beginning of the manufacturing process and enforces safer production methods. The partnership underscores Officina+39’s sustainable innovations such as Aqualess, its suite of laundry products it claims cuts water usage by 75 percent.

Sanitization continued to be an important story in 2021 as well. Brazilian denim mill Vicunha featured Swedish chemical company Polygiene’s Stay Fresh technologies in a range of fabrics that they claim can go longer between washes. The mill’s 2021-2022 collection is treated with combination of the Polygiene’s BioStatic and OdorCrunch technologies that inhibit the growth of odor-causing bacteria and remove environmental smells such as cooking fumes, cigarette smoke or body odor. Along with providing odor control, the combination of technologies reduces the number of times a product needs to be washed, saving energy, time and money.