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Is Denim Finally Entering a Golden Era of Sustainability?

Denim’s long journey from a functional uniform to the coveted fashion item it has become today is riddled with peaks (the premium boom of the aughts and the advent of laser finishing) and pits (stone washing and the rise of the yoga pant).

And now the commodity item turned runway piece is embarking on a new era that industry experts say is rooted in sustainability.

During a panel discussion at New York Denim Days, moderated by Tricia Carey, director of global business development for denim at Lenzing, industry insiders “The Godfather of Denim” Adriano Goldschmied, 3×1 founder Scott Morrison and Reformation director of denim and special projects Jordan Nodarse shared their insight about denim’s gradual shift toward eco-smart decision-making.

The fact that the topic was sustainability—not fashion at a consumer-facing event—spoke volumes. “We’ve realized that our industry doesn’t have any future at all if we’re not seriously thinking about sustainability,” said Goldschmied.

Be it a return to slow fashion, or buzz around new water-saving alternative fibers, the desire for denim to become a cleaner industry is palpable. “There is something actually happening,” Morrison said about denim’s eco movement, adding that it is the first big change in denim in quite a while.

Whereas in the past, the costs of developing a sustainable denim line would have immediately priced it out of the market, Morrison said brands are at a point now where they can create a comparable line of sustainable jeans with the quality and price points consumers expect.

“We reached this point where [sustainability] is approachable. It is the right price. The quality, the story, the messaging, everything is there. So, I’m really hopeful that this will be a chance for us to embrace [sustainability] and get the consumers to buy into it,” he said.

For Goldschmied, sustainability has been a long road that started in 1992 when he became the first designer to use Tencel lyocell in denim for Agolde. He opted for the alternative fiber derived from sustainably harvested trees in an effort to reduce the brand’s water and energy consumption.

That same narrative led Reformation 25 years later to adopt Tencel into its denim repertoire when it launched Ref Jeans last year, the sustainable brand’s first line of stretch and comfort stretch denim.

And when Reformation wanted to push its eco efforts further, it called on Goldschmied to develop a new denim fabric using Lenzing’s Refibra, a combination of 20 percent recycled cotton waste and wood pulp that is used to produce new virgin Tencel fibers.

The sustainable fabric was a natural fit for the Made in L.A. brand, which previously repurposed 100 percent cotton deadstock for its denim offering. Nodarse said the Refibra fabric has the same look and feel as denim that is 98 percent cotton, but it contains just eight percent cotton. The fabric consumes 80 less water than conventional cotton denim, even after the garment washing stage.

Having a sustainable brand like Reformation is not easy—nor is it always cost effective—but Nodarse urged that it is necessary. “In five to 10 years from now, water is going to be a huge commodity,” he said. “There’s already people out in the world who can’t get clean drinking water, so this is something huge that people need to start reacting to. It’s not happening quick enough.”

And there’s more than one way to define sustainable design, Morrison added. Denim’s timelessness is one of the factors that drew Morrison to the jeanswear industry to begin with—a concept that has become muddled with the rise of fast fashion.

“We try to make 50-60 percent of the collection items that should be things you want in your wardrobe two years from now,” he said. “We can’t control the consumer and their habits, but we can do a better job at trying to make some opportunity around great quality products.”

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