Denim is cleaner than ever. That’s not good enough

Photo: Candiani

The denim industry has battled a reputation as one of the dirtiest categories in apparel manufacturing. Brands and suppliers have worked hard to improve — but despite major progress, many of the root problems remain.

It’s the most timeless of fabrics, but also sensitive to trends. It’s the ultimate made-to-last textile, but is intentionally worn down in the manufacturing process. It’s spectacularly cleaned up its act, but its production is still pretty damaging. Denim is full of paradoxes.

In recent years, denim has arguably made more strides to improve its footprint than any other category of apparel. “We cannot compare a majority of denim production [from], let’s say, 15 years ago with what is possible and available today,” says Adriana Galijasevic, CEO of Cocircular Lab, which she founded after nearly a decade at G-Star Raw working in denim development and sustainability.

However, while denim manufacturing is categorically cleaner than it was 10 to 15 years ago, the consensus is that it’s still not clean — or water- or energy-efficient — enough.

Denim manufacturing has long been dominated by industrially grown cotton, water-intensive production and ecologically harmful dyeing processes. In the late 20th century, as style came to take precedence over utility, chemicals and processes such as acid washing and sandblasting — which use exactly the techniques their names suggest — piled on the damage. Given how durable denim fabric is designed to be, it takes a lot to distress it with precision and speed.

In response to a wave of negative publicity, brands and suppliers have worked hard to reduce their water use, while innovators have come up with solutions to reduce other impacts, from bio-based dyes to laser replacements for finishing chemicals.

Sandblasting and acid washing may be — mostly — history, but other issues persist. Hazardous chemicals are still used or released into the environment; the sector is still a heavy user of water and energy; and improved manufacturing practices do not address denim’s growing waste problem or the net impact from producing too much in the first place.

More fundamentally, larger industry dynamics remain relatively unchanged. Trends and design preferences continue to trump sustainability metrics; suppliers operate with low margins and on weak footing with brands; and many companies’ decision-making is driven by financial needs and interests rather than those of the planet.

Based on over two dozen interviews with brands, suppliers, industry associations and analysts, Vogue Business has found progress that can be best described as piecemeal.

A fundamental problem is that there are no databases to track the denim sector’s use of water, no agencies that monitor the chemicals applied to garments or discharged from factories and no institutions to determine, with authority, whether the sector is even moving in the right direction.

“We don’t have a measurement tool in our industry that measures everything,” says Andrew Olah, founder of the Transformers Foundation and Kingpins, a trade show for the denim supply chain. The lack of data hinders any ability to establish a baseline footprint or measure progress, as well as to evaluate the significance or impact of any particular initiative aimed at sustainability. “Unless there’s data, you have nothing to believe in. Zero.”

Transformers is working to create such a tool that Olah says will fill in those gaps. “We’ll be able to provide the data that everyone is looking for,” he says. Called the Transformers Transparency Tool, he expects it to be ready by 2024.

Impacts embedded in the fabric

The middle steps of the denim life cycle — producing and dyeing the fabric, then fading and distressing, also known as washing, and finishing the garment — are largely responsible for its negative reputation. Cotton production also has major impacts on the environment, health and human rights, but these are issues that all cotton-using industries must address.

In seeking to clean up denim, water has been a top priority for the industry, and many companies have reduced their water use in denim production significantly.

Levi Strauss & Co has developed a series of finishing processes to reduce the amount of water used during the stage of distressing the denim — tumbling jeans with golf balls instead of fabric softener, for example. By the end of 2020, 67 per cent of all its products were made using these techniques (called Water<less) or in facilities that meet its guidelines, according to the company’s sustainability report. It uses cottonised hemp — a blend of cotton and softened hemp, which uses considerably less water to grow — in an increasing number of products, after developing it with an iterative process spanning at least four seasons. “It took a great deal of R&D to unlock the cottonisation of hemp,” says Paul Dillinger, Levi’s head of global product innovation. “I’m really proud of that because it wasn’t just the integration of cottonised hemp into a comfortable, wearable form, but to demonstrate that it is possible to get a fashion company to keep focus over a multi-year project trajectory — that we don’t have the attention span of gnats, as we’re often accused.”

Hemp, along with organic and regeneratively grown cotton, all of which offer potential water savings and other ecological benefits at the farm level, is gaining traction with other brands as well, including Boyish, Outland Denim and Nudie Jeans, and suppliers including Candiani, Orta and US-based Cone Denim.

Meanwhile, industrial laundries have revolutionised denim manufacturing with more efficient water recycling systems and ozone and laser technologies, says Nicolas Prophte, VP of sourcing, production & innovation denim at Tommy Hilfiger. “This enables us to create beautiful washes with less than 10 litres of water per pant compared to approximately 85 litres 10 years ago.”

Kontoor, which owns Lee and Wrangler, says it started tracking water savings efforts in 2008 and has a goal to save 10 billion litres of water by 2025. Among the technologies it highlights are ozone finishing, which can replace the use of bleach for fading, advanced recycling and zero liquid discharge.

Despite the progress, denim’s water footprint remains a pressing issue. Denim factories still heavily use chemicals and processes such as bleach, formaldehyde, aniline and potassium permanganate, which is acutely hazardous for the workers who apply it. Powdered indigo is thought to still be fairly common, particularly in China. And most denim is produced in water-scarce or water-stressed countries, such as Bangladesh, India, Turkey and China, which then export much of it to retailers and consumers in wealthier, more water-abundant countries.

The role of the supplier

More radical thinking may be required. “When you’re talking about resource efficiency — why do you need to use freshwater [at all]?” says Sanjeev Bahl, founder and CEO of denim manufacturer Saitex. “I personally think the conversation is going in the wrong direction. We should be talking about radical resource productivity rather than sustainability.”

In January, Saitex opened a mill in Vietnam that collects and filters industrial wastewater for reuse in its own production. The company claims this allows the mill to operate without using any freshwater at all. It built a green chemistry protocol, and now tests its sludge — the often-hazardous waste produced by denim mills — to make sure it’s clean enough to burn for on-site energy production. Saitex says the water footprint of the 18,000 pairs of jeans it produces daily is down from 80 litres to 1.5 litres each.

Saitex is one of a handful of suppliers, along with others including Candiani based in Italy, Orta in Turkey, Crescent Bahuman in Pakistan and Arvind in India, taking the lead on water efficiency and other areas of denim’s impact.

“When a brand promises to reduce its water footprint by 25 per cent — it’s not the brand, it’s the suppliers who are going to make this happen… The supply chain is behind all the big promises and all the big launches by brands,” says Miguel Sánchez, textile engineer and technology leader for the Kingpins show.

That’s true for many other solutions that promise to reduce denim’s impacts. To transform the indigo dyeing process, traditionally one of the most problematic steps in denim production, many manufacturers have switched from powdered indigo to pre-reduced indigo, which is less hazardous, but more is needed.

Turkish denim mill Orta says its Indigo Flow process reduces the water used during dyeing by 70 per cent and can also lighten the load of chemicals released for wastewater treatment. Saitex says it has come up with a dye bath system that has a 90 per cent lower carbon footprint and uses 30 per cent less water than conventional methods.

In 2020, Candiani launched what it calls the world’s first compostable stretch denim. The elastane commonly used in stretch denim — and virtually all stretch clothing — is petroleum-based and a major technological challenge to replace with plant-based alternatives. Candiani’s version, called Coreva, is derived from natural rubber and is used by brands including Boyish, Denham and Outerknown.

Some solutions don’t find such success, or take time to get there.

Pakistani denim manufacturer Crescent Bahuman recently introduced a technique for creating different shades of denim that it says can eliminate the use of indigo and reduce the chemicals subsequently used to lighten it. “We’ve created some really nice shades of blue, but I don’t think the buying community is ready to buy into it. We showcased it in April and I don’t think we’ve sold a single metre,” says Zaki Saleemi, Crescent’s vice president of strategy, sustainability and innovation. “There’s so much uncertainty in the market. Nobody wants to take a first stab. Everybody wants to play it safe.”

Cost is another major constraint. Equipment upgrades, investments in new chemistries and manufacturing processes and the installation of renewable energy or water treatment technologies are all capital-intensive endeavours. Brands rarely provide financial support to their suppliers: less than nine per cent of fashion industry suppliers surveyed by the nonprofit Better Buying Institute reported receiving support from client brands to invest in alternative technologies. “It’s almost impossible to mitigate the cost. Buyers don’t give you a cent on the dollar. Any textile product out there, you have to fight for every penny,” says Saleemi.

“We simply don’t have the capacity to invest. I only have three laser machines, because they’re too expensive and I have to pay for it myself,” says Miran Ali, managing director of Bitopi Group in Bangladesh. “If there was some sort of incentive system put into place or access to some sort of financing at a lower cost, that would make it easier to implement [solutions] throughout the supply chain.” Levi‘s has partnered with the International Finance Corporation to create a programme along these lines; Ali would like to see larger companies, and more of them, do something similar.

Big brands hang back

For big brands, changing the supply chain can be scary and expensive. Many changes that promise to reduce impact the most also come with risk: switching to a fabric made with 100 per cent recycled fibres, for example, may be a noticeable change for consumers, while no one will notice a fabric with 15 per cent recycled content. Many big brands are reluctant to take that risk, or the responsibility of educating their consumers about why they’ve made the change.

That leaves smaller brands in a better position to push the envelope — they can design products with sustainability as a starting point, while established brands are trying to reverse-engineer products they’ve always sold.

Take stone-washed denim from heritage brands Lee and Wrangler as an example. Parent company Kontoor has eliminated stone washing in more than 90 per cent of its denim products, it says. Where it’s still used is in styles that have been around a while, according to Jeff Frye, VP of sustainability, innovation, product development and procurement. “We have to be careful when we change how things look, because our customers have expectations,” he says. “Manipulating any aesthetic for those iconic items — it’s a dynamic process. I think this last 10 per cent will be there. It just takes a little time and experimentation.”

Brand involvement in that process is key, because suppliers only produce what brands tell them to, with the most exacting of specifications, explains Saleemi of Crescent. “It’s that product requirement that drives basically what you’re going to put into it,” he says — like following a recipe, with precise amounts of water and chemicals, for example, needed for the specific outcome. “That change has to be initiated from the brand or the retailer for us as a manufacturer to be able to impact a lighter footprint,” he says. “Unless [brands are] willing to change, fundamentally, that aesthetic, it’s not going to change.”

Dillinger of Levi’s says brands should be doing more of that, using the elimination of synthetics as an example of where it would be useful. “What silhouettes are off the table because they don’t work without stretch? That does create a set of design constraints. But, those limitations are worthwhile. They’re justified, and we can come up with a really beautiful product,” he says. “You just have to be willing to make that your primary design motivation, or at least co-equal.”

Smaller, sustainability-centric brands, such as Boyish, Nudie, Mud Jeans, Outland and G-Star Raw Denim, may offer a blueprint for progress. They can be more agile in their fabric selection, can set their own parameters for what products they’re willing to make and how — and can engage with customers, if necessary, about why they’ve made certain decisions or what it might mean for how the customer wears or takes care of the items.

Distressing denim, or destroying it

Whatever shade of indigo your favourite jeans are, chances are they started out as stiff, thick and denim in a deep, dark indigo. The indigo is lightened and the garment faded, distressed and ripped or chafed in precisely the places the brand has ordered.

“You make it with a lot of indigo and then you start to destroy it, more or less,” says Thomas Schäfer, head of Bluesign Academy. ”The bad chemicals come in to make the style. It’s only for effect, it has nothing to do with performance.” He thinks about this quite a bit: “Is it sustainable to destroy denim before you use it? This is almost a philosophical question.”

The past decade has shown that safer, cleaner alternatives can and do exist. More are coming onto the market all the time, while ozone and laser technologies are used more frequently for fading and distressing denim. Spain-based Jeanologia is regularly coming out with potentially ”disruptive” technologies — such as the use of nanobubbles to transmit chemicals into a garment, as well as new laser and ozone capabilities — while biotechnology companies Colorifix and Huue offer bio-based dyes that could help to eliminate many of the hazards associated with indigo.

The bottleneck to scaling these technologies is brands. Critics say that until these initiatives do scale, brands are little more than greenwashing when they offer “eco-friendly” product lines without adopting the same practices across their entire supply chains.

The lack of industry data clouds progress. Sustainability initiatives, whether genuine or greenwashed, are not being systematically measured, making it impossible to know whether they represent an industrywide transformation or are anomalous, planet-friendly exceptions to the still-dirty norm. Critics still fear the latter. The denim sector is increasingly showing good intentions, but there has to be follow-through. “Everyone’s got their head in the right place, they want to improve the product offering from a sustainability perspective,” says Saleemi. “Yet, how far are companies willing to go?”

This article originally appeared in Vogue Business

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