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Drapers Denim Report: The business of greening jeans

Drapers explores how brands are overcoming the challenges of creating sustainable denim

Whether it is classic black skinnies, boyfriend or heavily embroidered, the UK’s love affair with denim shows no signs of fizzling out. Denim remains an integral market for retailers of all shapes and sizes, as high street giants, heritage denim brands and independents battle to attract consumers’ attention and spend.

However, the love affair with denim comes at a cost to the environment and, often, to the people who make it. Greenpeace research shows the typical pair of jeans takes 7,000 litres of water to produce. Meanwhile, the Clean Clothes campaign, which aims to improve working conditions in the global garment industry, has raised concerns about long hours, poor pay and dangerous working conditions in the southern China province of Guangdong – the region responsible for half the world’s production of blue jeans.

The jeans still have to be quality and clothes are about expressing yourself. We can’t be grey and negative

Bert van Son, CEO and founder of Mud Jeans

“The supply chain when it comes to making denim is very fragmented and that’s the biggest problem,” explains Mariette Hoitink, co-founder of Amsterdam-based House of Denim, an initiative that promotes sustainable denim and provides industry training. “There are so many different stages that have to be done by different people before you can produce a good pair of jeans.

“There’s also a lack of knowledge and many people working in the industry are not experts in denim. Although that doesn’t necessarily lead to sustainability issues in itself, it means people might not know the best steps to take to make their products more environmentally friendly.”

Sercan Baykal, manager of the Blue Lab, a platform that promotes training and sustainability in the denim industry, agrees: “The denim industry does suffer from a lack of knowledge. For instance, not choosing the right fabric for the right wash, or not knowing the right recipes of the chemicals. If all product managers, buyers and designers knew how to take forward their collection sustainably, it would save billions of litres of water.”

Cleaning up

Denim heavyweights are taking steps to clean up the process. Levi’s rolled out its recycling initiative in the UK earlier this year, asking customers to drop off unwanted clothes from any brand at in-store collection points. G-Star Raw is also championing greener denim, using sustainable materials in around 15% of its collection and developing long-term relationship with suppliers.

On the high street, H&M is leading the cause of sustainable denim. The Swedish retail giant launched its third Close the Loop Collection, which features denim made from recycled cotton, at the end of September. The collection includes women’s, men’s and children’s clothing and retails from £19.99 for children’s jeans and go up to £79.99 for a jacket.

group shot

group shot

H&M’s autumn 16 Close the Loop collection

“High street stores such as Next, Marks & Spencer and even Primark are increasingly focused on sustainability,” says Gareth Heaton, senior mens denim designer at DML Jeans, an etailer and manufacturer that makes jeans for high street retailers including River Island. “Even though it might not be at the forefront of consumers’ minds, who tend to be more price driven, that filters down to smaller businesses.”

DML is creating its own range of eco-friendly denim with Spanish sustainable garment-finishing specialist Jeanologia. The spring 17 “Hydroless” range uses low-impact chemicals and eco-washing, using 95% less water during the washing process.

Green hurdles

But there are still challenges facing sustainable denim. Catarina Midby, sustainability manager for H&M UK and Ireland, says a lack of technical know-how limits the amount of recycled cotton that can be used in fabrics, including denim.

“At this point, 20% to 30% is the maximum amount of recycled cotton that can be used within new fabric without compromising the quality. The aim, of course, is to use more material from recycled post-consumer waste, but we have to wait for the technology to improve to allow this.”

It’s not something we have to market, it should be the new norm – a better textile market where we take responsibility

Eliina Brinkberg, corporate social responsibility manager at Nudie

Retailers also have to tread a fine line between highlighting their sustainable credentials and alienating consumers, who can be put off by the higher prices. Data from Verdict Retail shows that, although 60% of consumers say a retailer’s sustainability is important to them, 20% would not pay more for eco-friendly products. 

H&M might be leading the charge on sustainable denim on the high street, but a number of smaller retailers are coming up with their own, innovative solutions to waste in the denim industry. Start-up Mud Jeans “leases” jeans to customers, who pay a one off membership fee of €20 (£17) and then a monthly fee of €7.50 (£6) for 12 months. Customers can opt to stop paying and keep the jeans, carry on paying and receive a new pair, or return them to Mud to be recycled and receive a voucher.

Founder and CEO Bert van Son explains: “We wanted to use organic cotton but it is more expensive and can be difficult to get hold of, so we had to start thinking of how we could get that cotton back. One way is to offer a discount when customers bring us old jeans when purchasing new ones, which we also do, but that’s not particularly revolutionary. Leasing and the circular economy is the only future fashion – and many other industries – has.”

Van Son stresses that retailers must think carefully about how they market eco-friendly denim, and warns that sustainability must not impact on quality: “We are seeing more and more consumers who don’t want to follow the pressure of fast fashion. However, the jeans still have to be [good] quality and clothes are about expressing yourself. We can’t be grey and negative. It has to be fun.”

bert van son

bert van son

Mud Jeans founder and CEO Bert van Son at a denim recycling factory

Eliina Brinkberg, corporate social responsibility manager at Swedish denim brand Nudie, which produces its jeans with organic cotton and publishes its production audits online, echoes this: “Customers are coming to us because they need a great pair of jeans. All the rest of the work we do is very important but we do it to make good jeans.

”For us, taking responsibility in production and when choosing materials is something that almost goes without saying. This is how we work, and this is also how other brands can work. It’s not something we should have to market, it should be the new norm – a better textile industry where we take responsibility.”

Making sustainable denim is not without its challenges. Retailers and brands will have to work hard on the design, quality and availability of eco-friendly ranges if they are to persuade consumers to pay more for green jeans. However, as denim giants become more eco-friendly and smaller brands blaze their own trails, those failing to embrace sustainability risk being left behind.

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