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Sustainable Denim: Small Steps to a Greener Future

Denim is joining the green revolution. The movement toward sustainable fabrics was crystal clear during a recent panel discussion, where industry professionals discussed ways to incorporate green solutions into the blue jean world.

The panel, “The Evolution of Green in Denim—Recycling,” was held at Kingpins in New York City on Jan. 21.

As environmentally-friendly innovations become more diverse and available to the denim market, manufacturers and retailers seek affordable ways to bring sustainable denim to the masses, and in particular, the Millennials.

Manufacturing Sustainability
In manufacturing, the newest sustainable development is denim recycling.

Panos Sofianos, creative director at Denim Valley by Tejidos Royo, has set an important precedent for creating recycled fibers. Sofianos explained that he wanted to incorporate a recycled element into the sustainable fiber created from eucalyptus pulp that Royo has used for 20 years. He experimented with different blends of cottons and recycled materials like polyester from bottles and textile remainders.

“This allowed us to experience things, to find out how this product should, first of all, be attractive,” Sofianos said. He initially struggled with the appearance of the recycled fiber, “It’s a short fiber, it appears open-ended, it appears like something that is not very commercial.”

The right combination ended up being Tencel, a eucalyptus fiber blended with waste from post-consumer materials. Now Denim Valley’s premier recycled textile is Renascut, a denim material made of 24 percent recycled fiber from post-consumer materials.

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Marketing Eco-Friendly
Since switching completely over to sustainability materials would be a costly leap for most retailers, stores are taking small steps toward incorporating sustainable fabrics, like Renascut, into existing brand strategies.

Target fabric and wash manager Emily Bennett sees sustainability as an important measure to integrate, but realizes she cannot sacrifice what the customer already values about the Target product.

Bennett said about Target’s female consumer, “We know it’s really important to her that it fits her grade, it makes her look fabulous, it’s really comfortable, it’s inexpensive, and, if it’s sustainable, that’s my motivation on the side, but I need it to work into all of those other factors first.” Bennett added that when she speaks to textile manufacturers, she must emphasize, “I want all of these others things that you’ve been delivering to me, and this in addition.” She faces the challenge of achieving all of this without impacting what the merchants see on their bottom line.

It is a similar conundrum at Express. Sue Browning, Express director of fabric development, explained that the company works primarily with about 20 mills, so she hopes to focus on encouraging the mills she already works with to incorporate sustainable measures.

“We’d like to work with as many people as we can, but there are people who have product that appeals to us, that we can afford, and that sells for us,” she said. “But that’s where we have to start, we have to start in our own backyard with the 20 people we work with.”

The Millennial Customer
The main market for sustainable clothing is the millennial customer. Lenzing global director of apparel Andreas Dorner said a recent study revealed that Millennials are willing to spend up to 7-9 percent more for sustainable clothing, and they will also put in the time to check different products.

He suggested that retailers start listening to these young customers. “If the willingness is high to have, let’s say, higher prices, to have an environmental effect on what you are creating, of course the brands will survive and will be successful,” Dorner explained.

According to Browning, Express is making a point to listen to Millennials, the retailer’s target customers. A member of the Express research team in the audience explained that the company thinks of the millennial generation in terms of its self-branding. “If they’re their own brand, what are they socially standing for? Is this important to them in that sense?”

Bennett believes that sustainability is important to the millennial customer at Target. She said, “Information is available at their fingertips and they share their opinions very quickly. And so I think that is one of the biggest shifts to look at as we’re looking at this next generation.” In terms of products, Bennett said, “They want to know it’s coming from someone they feel good about purchasing it from, and we have to make sure we’re delivering that to them.”