This new segment on Denim Dudes is part of a new environmental responsibility series created in collaboration with Ani Wells of Simply Suzette.

AG jeans facility

With the emergence of many new sustainable fashion coalitions and initiatives, there is no doubt the fashion industry needs a clean up;  denim in particular has been under attack for being one of the worst offenders. 6 BILLION jeans are produced a year, and 30% of those (1.8 billion jeans) never even get worn. But, denim’s waste problem isn’t solely due to unsold stock. Waste encompasses so many elements within the production of a pair of jeans: the water and energy used, the raw materials and the manufactoring processes. The amount of waste produced from the entire production is hard to quantify, but innovative technologies are emerging that are helping to solve fashion’s waste problem. In this article I’m going to take a look at how some of the leading denim brands, mills or technology companies are introducing new methods in order to lessen their environmental impact, and minimize waste. I’m focussing on three of the key pain-points in our industry right now: Water, fiber and of course, the finished garment itself.

1. Water Conservation 

It was amazing to hear Kontoor’s Director of Global Sustainable Business, Roian Atwood, speak recently at Kingpins show in Amsterdam about Wrangler’s investments in a more responsible supply chain. Their efforts should be an inspiration for other mass market brands. One of the newest technologies they have introduced is called Indigood, a foam dyeing process created in partnership with Tejidos Royo and Texas Tech University. Indigood claims to use 100% less water during the indigo dying process, which virtually eliminates wastewater and reduces energy use and waste by more than 60%. This new process also eliminates the need for reduction chemicals creating “an elegant one-process step,” says Roian. How does it work? Fibre2Fashion explains that the foam is made from a watery solution, which includes a foaming agent and a carrier for the dye stuff. The indigo dye is then transferred to yarns in an oxygen-deprived environment sealed by a nitrogen hood. This is a revolutionary process that has been in development for nearly a decade and is now being rolled out in some of Wrangler’s cheaper products, as well as their higher end items.

AG Jeans is another brand currently pioneering sustainable denim production within their vertical manufacturing facilities. They have just installed a new state-of-the-art water filtration system that saves over 100,000 gallons of water a day in their Los Angeles and Mexico locations. The first step of the filtration process is the collection of denim waste water. Step two is to trap and eliminate all the impurities, then filter out the denim sludge in step three. After clarification, an ultrafiltration process is completed to sanitize the water and lastly, a reverse osmosis step for complete purification. With this new system in place, all AG garments are produced using recycled water. It’s great to see AG Jeans implement this technology into all of their lines, rather than a capsule collection, as it shows a company-wide commitment to responsible production. Their goal is to recycle 50 million gallons of water a year – equivalent to 75 Olympic pools, 1.25 million bathtubs or 417 million pounds!

AG jeans new state-of-the-art water filtration system saves over 100,000 gallons of water a day

Our good friends over at Boyish Jeans take a holistic approach to sustainability and reducing their waste by looking at every stage in their supply chain. This hyper-focussed approach has led Boyish to continuously improve efficiency and their impact. In Boyish’s 2018 Sustainability Report, they detail every step in the process; using reduced indigo from Dystar, recycling their water, using recycled cotton and increasing the use of Tencel and Refibra in their products. But what really shines through is a new project called Farm to Brand that works with organic cotton farmers to improve their water management by helping them purchase and install drip irrigation to reduce water usage. Waste exists in all steps of the supply chain, but very few brands think back to the literal roots of agriculture and cultivating the raw materials.

2. Fibre Recycling

A key mill tackling fashion’s waste problem is ISKO and their new R-TWO program. This initiative was created to avoid waste and improve sourcing efficiency throughout the whole field-to-fabric supply chain. It relies on a blend of certified reused cotton and certified recycled polyester, which reduces its dependence on petroleum as a raw material, ultimately reducing the overall carbon footprint over ISKO’s fabrics. For every 100 kilos of raw cotton processed into yarn, 10% is lost. ISKO collects this waste and adds it back into the spinning process creating cotton that is fully traceable, documented, and audited by yarn supplier Sanko. The recycled polyester comes from clear plastic bottles or other certified waste. It is then ground up into pellets that can be re-spun with the reused cotton. The R-Two program was developed to rethink ISKO’s sourcing strategies to prevent sourcing more raw materials than what is needed. This concept was essential in the development of the SS21 fabric collection, as ISKO’s “reused and recycled” program has been implemented throughout their whole denim offering. 

Avery Dennison has also been working on their range of recycled polyester offerings. Their aim is to eliminate single-use plastics from labelling and lessen plastic pollution, especially in oceans, with their industry transforming Printed Fabric Labels. Avery has partnered with Plastic Bank to set up recycling centers in the world’s poorest areas where plastic collection by individuals is monetised. The collected plastic is recycled back into Avery Dennison’s supply chain, decreasing the amount of plastic entering the ocean and helps lift communities out of poverty. Not only are PFL’s made from recycled polyester, they can be recycled, as well. By reusing existing materials, cutting energy use and keeping costs low, Avery Dennison’s Printed Fabric Labels offer a smarter solution to waste. Albert Yarn is yet another waste solution, showcasing how garbage can be turned into something useful and desirable. For a more in depth look at sustainable labeling solutions, check out Avery Dennison’s Sustainability Deep Dive.

Avery Dennison’s recycled woven label

Kings of Indigo has always been a brand whose ethos and values include a holistic approach to their supply chain by analysing all areas of concern. This full comprehensive report of the brand’s impact explains all of the sustainable processes they have implemented in creating their products, but also the impacts these sustainable methods have on the planet. One aspect of their zero waste goal is to increase the 15.03% use of recycled fibres in their garments. They aim to achieve this through Lenzing’s newest product Refibra. Tencel explains, Refibra is a fibre made from pre-consumer cotton scraps combined with wood pulp, meaning it only relies on re-using what has already been made to create fresh fibres for use. It is also produced with Tencel’s Lyocell closed loop system, helping support the circular economy in textiles. 

The circular economy truly relies on textile recycling which can be done mechanically or chemically. Mechanical textile recycling is the easiest form that most of us have seen: it involves deconstructing the fabrics to be turned into new ones, but Fashion For Good notes that this process generally results in low-value output like insulation. Chemical recycling is a newer technology, one that Adriano Goldschmeid predicts will be the norm in 10-15 years. At Kingpins Transformers last month,  Re:Newcell presented their new recycling technology that allows cotton and viscose to be dissolved. This process involves chemically processing the material, turning it into a pulp, and extruding it into new fibres. Chemical recycling offers the potential to create fibre of equal or higher quality, where one can see one t-shirt recycled for one t-shirt made. However, it is still difficult to recycle blended fibres, which is an area of focus currently being explored.

An inforgraphic from Ellen MacArthur Foundation illustrating the circular cycle of a new textile economy

3. Longevity

As fast fashion has consumed the industry, a lot of clothing produced today is made with blended fibres for added comfort and performance. According to the World Economic Forum, clothing is being worn 40% less than the previous generation and when it is discarded, 73% of it is either burned or sent to the landfill. 12% of what gets collected will most likely be mechanically recycled to be used for insulation or mattresses, and less than 1% of what is collected is actually used to make new clothing. The solution? Better quality clothing!

Price has become an equalizer to the consumer and people have stopped looking at the value. Brands, like Tenue, are trying to change fashion’s narrative by producing quality clothing that can be repaired (free with your Tenue purchase) over and over. Longevity is key and by adopting the use of monofibres instead of synthetic and mixed fibre fabrics, the potential for Tenue’s garments to be recycled into new fibre is huge. Tenue notes that when a consumer is purchasing one of their products, they are asked crucial questions:  Do you really need it? Do you know what it is made of? What will you do with it when you are done with it? It is important that brands communicate the value of their product, but Tenue takes it one step further by educating the consumer about the whole lifecycle of their product. This ultimately prevents their pieces from ending up in the landfill.

Tenue de Nimes recently launched its new denim line Tenue.Co with a focus on quality long lasting product

In the age of “Digital Disruptors,” as Denim Dudes SS21 trend report outlines, we have also begun to see digital clothing brands break into the scene. Carlings is one of the first apparel companies to release a digital-only clothing line which offers the perfect solution to our waste / overproduction problem. The designs are 3D rendered onto a photo that is sent in by the customer meaning the garment only exists online. This relatively new phenomenon taps into the importance of online status to the next generation and that sometimes, our ‘avatars’ are as important as an IRL experience. Most consumers are still very much rooted in the real world but this concept offers a possible look at the future of clothing or at least offers an alternative to fast fashion. 

With brands like Wrangler, Kings of Indigo, Boyish and Tenue, and new technology such as Indigood and Re:Newcell, there is much hope for the industry to move towards a circular economy and eliminate waste. It is important for brands to analyze their entire supply chain and keep supporting their partners to allow them to work on areas of improvement together. Collaboration will be key in improving the industry, and we are getting closer and closer with every conversation and every new idea.

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Sustainable denim advocate, educator and curator

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