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Year in Review: Sustainable Gains (and Losses) for Denim

Sustainability yet again was the most used buzzword of the year in the denim supply chain.

However, two recent studies revealed that fashion’s sustainability claims remain convoluted, desperately in need of a single global standard and easily manipulated to seem better than they really are. Then there was perhaps the biggest shocker of all—many brands have reverted to previously proven harmful environmental and social practices.

In November, global advocacy group Remake issued an evaluation of 58 of the world’s largest fashion, luxury and big-box retail players that bluntly stated, ““We are back to cheap consumerism, high profits, low wages, massive greenwashing, tokenistic racial justice and the constant churn of new collections.”

That same month denim-industry watchdog Transformers Foundation released a report on the ineffectiveness of chemical auditing in the supply chain. It revealed that the lack of single, worldwide guidelines has allowed harmful chemicals to continue to be used by the industry and that major change is desperately needed.

Despite these setbacks, visible and tangible progress was made in the sustainability arena in 2022, helping to make the production and selling of the beloved blue fabric greener than ever.


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A report by retail analytics firm Edited showed that denim makers continued to replace conventional cotton fibers with other natural alternatives. Although cotton remains the number one fiber of choice for denim, organic cotton saw an increase of 17 percent year-over-year, recycled cotton a 125 percent increase and hemp and 15 percent jump.

In addition, the number of waterless denim concepts in the U.S. and U.K. leapt 32 percent year-over-year according to Edited.

Sustainable fibers were the main draw at both the Sourcing at Magic trade show in Las Vegas in August and Denim Première Vision in Milan in November. Among the many innovations introduced at the latter was Isko’s Ctrl+Z, a range of fabrics made entirely from recycled and regenerated fibers, and Azgard-9’s Revive, a denim made with up to 40 percent recycled content.

Circulose, a branded material made from 100 percent renewable textiles by Sweden’s Renewcell also made headlines throughout the year. In March, Renewcell signed a letter of intent with Daiwabo Rayon Co., a Japanese cellulosic fiber producer, for a long-term commercial collaboration around man-made cellulosic fiber production. Renewcell also launched a collaborative collection with Zara in August, officially inaugurated the world’s first commercial-scale textile to textile pulp mill in Sundsvall in November and signed a five-year cooperation with Lenzing Group the following month.

December also saw the release of the denim Nextevo x Bershka collection, the former’s first major commercial launch that employs its proprietary PALF (pineapple leaf fiber) made from discarded leaves of the tropical fruit that can be blended with more conventional materials.


Hemp and other natural fibers continued to be the foundation of fabrics launched in 2022. In May Lenzing and Candiani Denim released Tencel Limited Edition with hemp and Coreva fabrics, a blend combining the Italian mill’s biodegradable stretch denim technology with the Austrian fiber producer’s novel cellulosic fiber revamped to include a “substantial proportion of hemp pulp.”

Cone Denim has expanded its partnership with hemp processing innovator BastCore, following Cone’s recently launched U.S. Hemp Collection.
Cone’s U.S. Hemp Collection Courtesy

Hemp is also the centerpiece of Cone Denim’s U.S. Hemp Collection with BastCore that it unveiled at the Kingpins Amsterdam Show in April. Cone expanded its partnership with BastCore, a processor that created a patent-pending technology and a proprietary process that produces clean, mechanically processed, Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certified and U.S. Department of Agriculture bio-preferred hemp fiber out of its facility in Montgomery, Ala.

Another Kingpins Amsterdam debut was Calik’s B210, which it introduced at the October edition. The product is a combination of unique yarn technology with a special finishing process that takes its name from the fact that it allows fabric to biodegrade in nature by more than 99 percent in just 210 days.

Washing and Finishing

The start of 2022 brought a new joint project between Jeanologia, the finishing technology firm, and chemicals manufacturer Archroma to create denim that is free from aniline, a carcinogenic substance that is used in the mercerizing process of jeans production. The new option piggybacks on Jeanologia’s water-free and chemical-free G2 Dynamic finishing technology.

Archroma also partnered with denim innovation company CleanKore, which owns and distributes a patented yarn dyeing technology, to produces sustainable black sulfur denim with white abrasion highlights without using chemicals. It reworks sulfur dyeing of cellulosic yarn on a continuous warp dyeing machine by keeping the natural whiteness of the cotton inside the fibers and dyeing the outer layer only.

Another partnership followed when Turkish laundry Kaiser and German chemical supplier DyStar collaborated on an innovation called “Advanced Used Look” that creates faded look denim without all the water and chemical usage associated with traditional dyeing and washing.

Italian treatment and finishing specialist Tonello upgraded to a new generation of industrial washing machines called Evolution 3 at its facility in San Lazzaro di Savena. These state-of-the-art models maximize water savings and decrease energy use by 20 percent.


Previewed at Munich Fabric Start in September, many Fall/Winter 2023-24 trims are inspired by snow and apres-ski categories with a color palette that is reminiscent of winter mountaintops. Another major influence is the metaverse, resulting in buttons, zippers, et al that are iridescent, reminiscent of holograms and/or shiny and metallic.

Like most everything else in the denim supply chain, sustainable materials and production are also of utmost importance.

Japanese fastener manufacturer YKK reported in December that sales of its Natulon recycled zipper series rose 224 percent year-on-year and that it is aiming to have all its products made with 100 percent recycled or naturally occurring materials by 2030. Among its new launches in 2022 are a water repellent zipper made from recycled PET plastic and two zippers and a button made with Econyl regenerated nylon.

The company also bowed its first removable button and rivet at Kingpins Amsterdam in October.

In addition, YKK competitor Cadicagroup made news in March when the Italian company bought Varcotex, a hangtag and label manufacturer for the luxury sector. It was Cadicagroup’s fourth acquisition in 36 months, making it one of the leading operators in high-end fashion accessories in Europe.


Certification company Bluesign launched Finder, a web-based search engine for manufacturers to discover more than 20,000 Bluesign Approved chemical products, and ZDHC (Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals) added all PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) treatments used for textiles, leather and footwear substances to its Manufacturing Restricted Substances List (MRSL) Version 3.0 that was published in the fall.

ZDHC also partnered with Higg and Bluesign in October to expand the available data on Higg’s platform that helps textile manufacturers improve chemical management, reduce the risk of water toxicity, better analyze and address human health impacts and remove harmful chemicals from their production processes.

Colorant producer Dystar announced in September that it had made significant progress in reaching its goal of reducing its environmental footprint by 30 percent for every ton of product from 2011 levels. “As a leading specialty chemical manufacturer and producer, DyStar will continue to invest responsibly into product innovation and diversify into renewable energy, to drive sustainable outcomes across our value chain and industries,” its executive board director said.

Natural indigo producer Stony Creek Colors of Tennessee was also a newsmaker throughout the year. It sealed a deal with Archroma to produce and distribute its IndiGold pre-reduced indigo, won a Sustainable Fashion Award in the Groundbreaker category with partner Albini Group and received a $4.8 million investment from Levi Strauss & Co. and Lewis & Clark AgriFood in December.

A Crackdown on Greenwashing

Under pressure from governmental organizations and consumers, several brands were forced to backtrack on their sustainability claims after being accused of greenwashing or exaggerating their supposed environmental friendliness. In particular the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s (SAC) Higg Materials Sustainability Index and Textile Exchange’s Preferred Fiber and Materials List (MSI), a module of the popular Higg Index suite of tools that scores the environmental impacts of materials, was criticized for being a certification that can easily be manipulated to make production seem much greener than it actually is.

In June the trade group the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) commissioned, “with urgency,” an independent third-party expert review of the data and methodology behind the MSI. The trade group also paused its Transparency Program, a consumer-facing platform it introduced in 2021 to provide at-a-glance information about the impact of apparel and footwear items across factors such as water, greenhouse-gas emissions and fossil fuels.

The two actions came right after the Norwegian Consumer Authority (NCA) decided that Norrøna was “breaking the law” when it marketed its outdoor wear as environmentally friendly based on MSI data. The authority also warned H&M of doing the same, saying that using Higg MSI data in sustainability claims was “misleading” and a breach of greenwashing laws.

The following month plaintiff Chelsea Commodore, a New York state resident and independent consumer, filed a class-action lawsuit in the Southern District of New York accusing H&M of deceiving consumers about the veracity of its sustainability claims through the use of “false and misleading” environmental scorecards, “falsified information” and advertising on hundreds of items.

The Swedish fast-fashion giant was hit with a second class action lawsuit by consumers Abraham Lizama and Marc Doten in a Missouri federal court on Nov. 3, alleging that H&M unlawfully, falsely and misleadingly marketed products under its “Conscious Choice” collection–which it canceled in September after 12 years–as sustainably and environmentally friendly, thereby violating the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act, California’s Consumer Legal Remedies Act, California’s False Advertising Law and California’s Unfair Competition Law.

In December H&M requested that the two courts dismiss both lawsuits. It said that the so-called missing information in the Missouri one was available for consumers all along and that that “no reasonable customer would be misled by H&M’s website when the link to the underlying data was readily and prominently available” regarding the New York one.

 H&M introduced a men’s workwear-inspired denim capsule made with cotton alternatives.
H&M’s Better Denim Courtesy

Amidst the controversy, in August the chain introduced an eight-piece limited edition “Better Denim” collection created from fabrics that use Renewcell’s Circulose viscose and Lenzing Group’s Tencel lyocell with Refibra technology. The retailer also said that half of the collection included mechanically recycled cotton. The collection was sold in the EMEA region and in Asia.

More recently H&M announced a multi-million-dollar supply-chain decarbonization plan, launched an eco-focused kids’ line incorporating cactus leather and stressed its support of Business for Nature’s Make It Mandatory campaign, which would require businesses to assess and reveal their impacts and dependencies on biodiversity by 2030.

Similar to H&M’s cancelling the Conscious Choice collection, in October German e-tailer Zalando dropped its three-year old sustainability “flag” after a Norwegian jury presented the Berlin-based fashion purveyor with its inaugural greenwashing “prize.” Zalando too had based its claims according to Higg MSI criteria. Likewise, Asos also pulled its “Responsible Edit” and its related filters in July when Britain’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) announced a greenwashing probe into the e-tailer, along with Boohoo’s “Ready for the Future” range and George at Asda’s “George for Good” collection.