It’s pretty safe to say by now that brands, mills and the supply chain have gotten a kick in the butt (more like a slap to the face) to ramp up both their digital presence and sustainability efforts. But with so many different approaches to creating a more conscious jean, it can get quite tricky navigating through all the “newest” and “best” tech out there, especially when we aren’t able to take a gander through the trade show floors! We’ve been feeling your pain, so thats why I recently put together the Supply Chain 101 (a deep dive into the entire supply chain from raw material to the end of your jean’s life) and Denim Dudes has put out THE DENIM DIRECTORY, a report showcasing all the latest yarn developments and blends, new sustainable advances and tech-based solutions, as well as new wash and finish directions. With Sustainability at the heart of this season’s supply chain’s ethos, I’m going to use my sustainability expertise and dig into this season’s highlight reel to explore some of the advances that caught my eye, starting at fibre and leading all the way through to finish.

DNM Denim’s, The Akiva Mossy, as featured in the DENIM DIRECTORY

What we often forget is how long it takes new fibres to hit the mainstream. Think of those 100% plaid polyester pants from the 70s and how far polyester has come since then. It took some time! But our blue buddies and experts from other industries have been working extremely hard to make new sustainable fibre developments possible and economically feasible.

Imagine a world where our clothing was no longer made from raw materials, but instead recycled from our discarded wardrobes. This concept has been at the heart of the fiber story lately and is set to change the way we look at raw materials. Man-made Cellulosic fibers have been around for over 100 years (Viscose, Rayon, Lyocell, Modal and Cupro) but using the principle to extract cellulose from existing clothing is the game-changer that allows us to begin to close our apparel loop for good. Circulose is a fiber derived from chemically recycled waste textiles and engineered to create a totally new product. The beauty of these fibers is that they don’t use trees, plants or oil and the resource they use is one that we want to eradicate: garments destined for landfill.

Renewcel denim textile waste, photo by Alexander Donka

Renewcell is a Swedish textile-to-textile recycling company that launched Circulose in 2014, and by 2020, garments made from Circulose became available in the market, most notably from Levi’s and H+M. Infinited Fiber offers a cellulose carbonate textile that uses a combination of used textiles, cardboard and agricultural waste to make new natural cotton-like fibre. Both processes extrude a new and improved fibre that is of the same or higher quality to its origin. We expect this market to explode over the next few years, and it’s exciting to watch how it will impact the mill’s and brand’s future collections. This season both AGI Denim and Artistic Fabric Mills have explored this intriguing new technology that allows us to maximize the use of our raw materials and keep our jeans cycling through the system forever. Let’s continue to extract that value! 

Lenzing has been a pioneer in the Man-Made Cellulosics market and continues to lead the way with their new Refibra technology. REFIBRA™ is an innovative fiber made from cotton waste textiles combined with Lenzing’s renowned Tencel fiber. I’d call this a match made in heaven! Cotton scraps are turned into a cotton pulp that is added to Tencel’s famous wood pulp. This offers the industry a solution to move us towards a circular economy by creating the highest value for wasted textiles. All done in Tencel’s signature closed-loop system, Tencel can capture, recycle and reuse over 99% of the water and solvents. Apart from production, the sustainably managed forests (from which the fiber comes from) only use rain-fed water to grow, meaning no additional irrigation is needed. Lenzing, we’re a fan.

Aside from the emerging and technical circular market, there are plenty of other fibres that might not sound revolutionary, but in the denim textile world, they offer an alternative to cotton, which come with their own benefits; both environmental and physical.

Have you ever heard of silk cotton? Well, the Kapok tree produces seed hairs that pretty much replicate the feeling of silky cotton with synthetic properties, but all thanks to mother nature. The fibre is naturally water-resistant but quite brittle, so it needs blending for strength. But the amazing thing about this plant is that it grows wild, meaning that it isn’t artificially watered and no pesticides are used. Indian mill, Arvind has tapped the Kapok fiber this season. Similarly, the banana fibre is often blended to achieve unique looks and tasty slubs. Just check out Japan Blue’s 70% cotton 30% banana selvedge denim! 

Arvind’s Kapok denim as featured in the DENIM DIRECTORY

Rolling on with mother nature’s finest, the craze about hemp is still much on the rise due to its ability to sequester carbon, nourish our soils, it’s speedy growth rate, and it’s ability to get rid of unwanted pests without any pesticides. But, to use this wonderful plant in our jeans, the fiber goes through a “cottonization” process, shortening the fiber length and making it soft to the touch like cotton. Despite rumblings in the industry around this cottonising process’s environmental impact, we are seeing many mills experiment with different hemp blends to get the right balance between an authentic look and a soft hand. In particular, hemp / Tencel pairings are perfect for achieving that true denim character without hemp’s inherent scratchiness. Atlantic, Prosperity, Blue Diamond, Calik, AGI and Artistic Milliners are amongst some of the mills experimenting with hemp blends this season and we’re sure to see more and more offering their own hemp blends, as well.

Linen is like hemp’s sister, that it isn’t commonly found in denim or jeans. But, much like hemp, linen is an extremely durable fiber with amazing naturally occurring benefits. It’s breathability and absorbability makes it ideal for the Spring/Summer season while adding a beautiful texture and slub to the fabric. Orta, Kilim and Stella Blu are amongst the few who have experimented with linen in blends, much the same way as hemp.

Levi’s Cottonized Hemp line

Now nobody’s perfect, but we should always be aiming for rapidly renewable fibres that are low maintenance and require fewer chemicals during the cultivation or production stage. And as cotton has been dubbed for being one of the more resource-intensive crops (albeit based on flawed data at this time) we’ve also started to see many Zero Cotton blends offer a “healthy balanced diet of fibers,” as Anne Oudard once told us. 

Artistic Milliners have developed a 100% recycled fabric using no virgin cotton or cellulose and a Tencel blend for an authentic appearance and softer hand. In comparison, Soorty offers a 50% Tencel / 50% Ecovero alternative. Artistic Garment Industries has created a 70% ‘not from virgin’ denim and uses an element of post-consumer waste in most of their fabrics. All this fiber experimentation suggests that experimental blends, recycled or circulouse yarns and kinder raw materials seem to be driving sustainable innovation at the very first step of the garment’s lifecycle. This is thrilling to see and shows us how the industry is taking action at every single step in the supply chain.

So now that we have explored fiber innovation we’ll head into indigo territory. It almost seems paradoxical how indigo is in denim’s DNA yet remains one of the most significant issues we have to solve to create a “clean” jean. But, there are many options out there claiming to be the cleanest and greenest. Archroma has been leading the way with the launch of their analine free indigo; Denisol Pure Indigo 30, which was launched a couple of years ago and has been tapped by many mills, but other concepts have joined the race. 

Atlantic has launched their Quick Bleach Out that explores fewer indigo dips for those looking for mid-tone wash-downs, while Dubai’s Desert Studios have introduced ECF finish. A special fabric processing treatment that allows for quick fades in the laundry, reducing process time and chemical use, while also eliminating the discharge of any wastewater.

Blue Diamond partnered with Tonello to showcase Smart Indigo this season: an electrochemical process in place of the standard petroleum-based products which results in 60% less water. Smart Indigo’s only needs are indigo pigment, caustic soda, water, and electricity to produce a very consistent dye. And we all know how hard it is to be consistent!

Out of all these approaches to creating the most eco-friendly indigo dye, one common aspect is minimizing water use. But is it possible to dye without using any water? Tejidos Royo have spent ten years perfecting their DryIndigo solution for a number of its denim fabrics. This process eliminates 99% of water usage in the indigo dye process using a foam dyeing method. The foam is made from a water-like solution that includes a foaming agent and a dyestuff carrier. The yarns are then dyed in an oxygen-deprived environment that is sealed by a nitrogen hood. You can imagine why it took ten years to develop! 

Tejidos Royo’s Willow denim, made with the company’s DryIndigo technology, the DENIM DIRECTORY

AGI have implemented a zero waste water dying system, whilst Artistic Milliners continues with their 3.0 version of Crystal Clear (reducing water use by 80%) and Arvind tapped their G2 Dynamic Ozone tech which explores significantly less water and chemicals with a brighter blue shade. Naveena introduced ‘Nick Indigo’ which uses less than 1% indigo, but produces 3-4% looking shades. And, we’re also starting to see some going back to indigo’s true roots: natural indigo plants.

One of the reasons natural indigo isn’t used very often is the challenge of creating a consistent colour. But Artistic Garment Industries and Cone Denim both have natural indigo collections, proving it can be done for those purists out there. And in recent years, the industry’s attention has begun to really focus on the power and possibility in the world of natural dying. Achroma’s EarthColours range is one of the most comprehensive natural dye ranges out there. While most natural dyes have a low yield, they also compete with food production. But, EarthColours technology creates a fully traceable dye derived from the agricultural and herbal industries’ waste products, meaning the apparel and food industries are working together to eliminate food waste. There are six dyes in the range derived from almond shells, cotton plant residue, bitter orange residue, beetroot, and saw palmetto. 

Tonello has experimented with natural dyes through their machinery expertise and launched Wake in 2019. Wake uses 100% natural and organic materials from plant and vegetable waste like flowers, berries and roots. These are then left out to dry and then used to infuse at garment stage. You can almost think of using it like steeping your jean in a hot cup of tea. Check out this previous Denim Dudes article for more.

Tonello WAKE uses plant and vegetable waste

Can you imagine dyeing new garments with old ones? Yes, you read that question right! Officina+39 was fascinated by the idea of using waste as a resource and worked to produce a pigment made from recycled textiles called Recycrom. The dyestuff range is made from used clothing, fabric scraps and fibrous materials that is pulverized to a powder. So, the next bundle of used green t-shirts could soon become the source for your next green collection. 

Officina+39, Recycrom Dyestuff, as featured in the DENIM DIRECTORY

Not as colourful as the rest of the bunch, but we’re starting to see non-toxic approaches to achieving a true black. During a Kingpins24 event, Sarah Ahmed, founder of Warp + Weft, said that it always irks her when she sees ladies in their black leggings at the gym because of all the nasty chemicals she knows are in that product. But, Nature’s Coatings have developed a black pigment colouring derived from wood waste. The pigment is produced in a closed-loop system and does not emit a measurable amount of greenhouse gases. Now that is a win. A positive for the environment and your skin with 90-100% less Polyaromatic Hydrocarbons, known as PAHs. 

These innovations are only a glimpse into this season’s sustainable technology and advancements but show us how dedicated the supply chain is to offer cleaner and greener processes. Diligent denim is here to stay. For an overview of each concept, plus many more fabric, fiber and finish trends, download this here.