Episode 43: How are denim brands reinventing their processes to be more sustainable?




Denim, organic cotton, indigo, compostable, biodegradable, recycled cotton, jeans, GOTS certified, Green screen, blue sign, Oeko-tex



Welcome to the Fashion Unearthed podcast. If you need help navigating the fashion industry sustainably, you have come to the right place. I'm your host Belinda Humphrey and my hope is to simplify the fashion industry so that businesses can make the best decisions for people, planet and product.


Hello, and welcome to episode 43 of the Fashion Unearthed podcast. Today's episode was inspired by a post I saw earlier in the week from stylist magazine that declared double denim is back. But before I get into that, in today's episode, if you're a lover of fashion, make sure you're signed up to my newsletter, as I'm planning on changing up the format a bit and including some exclusive content, giving you even more insight into sustainability within fashion as well as some practical insider tips from my 20 years in fashion so head to

belindahumphrey.com  and sign up if you're interested in that.


Okay, so off the back of stylist magazine saying "double denim was back" seemingly in response to two years of sitting around in trackpads, or sweats, retailers seem keen to revive their denim offering. And as a lover of denim, myself personally and someone who's built multimillion dollar denim categories from scratch I've always kept my eye on what's happening in this space.


Now let's start with a few figures, the website Edited reported that denim stocked with sustainable keywords increased 176% Since 2019, and 52% increase year on year. However, less than half (which is 43%) of the overall assortment of denim stocked online is described as sustainable or containing conscious elements. So you could say that maybe this category was coming off a low bar, so the increase since 2019 is impressive. But across the board, when you look at the category, there's still a lot of catching up to do. The low bar I'm talking about are denims traditional labour and resource intensive processes. There really wasn't much happening in sustainability in this area three years ago, it had a bad reputation for copious amounts of water, toxic dyes and harmful labour practices both on farms and through the production phase. But fast forward to today, the last two years of the pandemic has really fast tracked change in this area.


And in this episode, I wanted to run through what some consistent priorities are for brands across the board. I've grouped all these priorities into generally six key areas. The first one is a focus on water. Now I'd love to start this by including a statistic on how much water it takes to make a pair of jeans but how about four. Apparently the UN has said one pair takes 7500 litres of water, Vogue quotes upwards of 1800 gallons which is 8108 litres. Levi's claim 3781 litres of water and Everlane quotes 1500 litres used to create one pair of denim jeans. Now the figure is important to be able to then reduce it and quantify it but you can already see how much variation there is. And I suspect it's because they're using maybe different impact systems or varying what they include. Some might include the farm processing or the growing of cotton some might not be. But no wonder customers are confused. In any case, with water being a finite resource the focus on water is an important one. Whether styles are using less or no water, Edited reported that these are up 24% year on year and 76% since 2019. Wrangler's Indigood fabrics use 90% Less water, Everlane report that they only use point four of a litre per pair and Outland report that their process uses up to 86% less water, you get the picture. Another important aspect to the focus on water is brands using recycled water and warp and weft report that they recycle 98% of water use.


The next key area that I want to talk about is organic cotton. Now there is a bit of a debate happening on a textile exchange figures stated that organic uses 91% less water than conventional cotton to grow. And according to a Forbes article, they say "there is no known critically reviewed correlation between organic cotton farming and reduced water consumption in cotton farming. Nor is the cotton's irrigated water consumption known to be determined by its organic or conventional status". But without getting into that too much, organic cotton in particular GOTS certified is the fibre of choice for a lot of denim brands as opposed to conventional cotton. Now obviously Nudie has been using organic cotton forever, but Ganni and Outerknown even Prada are now using GOTS certified cotton in their denim. There weren't many true denim brands not using organic cotton.


The third focus is on biodegradability or in some cases compostability. Brought about by new innovation replacing elastane with rubber based alternative many brands are now able to use stretch without synthetics. Jack and Jones have a new line of gold level Cradle to Cradle certified jeans which are 98% organic cotton, and 2% Roica, which is a degradable elastane, they also have detachable buttons for easy recycling and back patches are made of Jacron which is a wood pulp fibre resembling leather. And as a side note Outland denim also used Jacron for their back patches. Denham have also partnered with leading Italian denim brand Candiani to make biodegradable stretch denim jeans using what they've branded as COREVA™ fabric, which I'm not sure if I'm pronouncing that right, but Candiani report that it will be totally compostable in less than six months. Frame denim has also introduced a 10 piece denim collection called Pure denim. They've made theirs with 100% biodegradable organic cotton that uses 98% less water in its production process compared to traditional denim processes. AG also have what they're calling the jean of tomorrow, which they say is 100% biodegradable. However, the fabric focuses on different composition 69% organic cotton, 19% Lyocell and 12% Hemp. I wonder if they might mean that they're actually compostable and I wonder if it's a language thing because of them being in America because they also feature no metal rivets, tencel threads to hold the fabric together and instead of metal buttons they use corozo nuts. Also the size and care labels were replaced by screen printed soy based inks. I feel like just from reading that you don't go down to all of that detail without wanting it to be compostable over biodegradable. And if you want a refresher on the difference between biodegradable and compostable, it's episode six that I talked through that on the podcast.


The fourth area is around recycled materials, Edited highlights that the number of styles made with recycled materials and components have increased 503% Since 2019, which sounds amazing, but I would be interested to dive deeper into what fibres make up those styles because as we know, recycled polyester has been widely adopted and would be picked up by their systems scanning the internet. But it really just prolongs the journey to landfill and still contributes to microplastics. You'll probably know but polyester and nylon are used in superstretch styles and maybe with the decrease of the skinny jean this has also decreased the need for that. Anyhow, the positive in this statistic hopefully is if it is recycled cotton, which because denim uses a thicker yarn, it can have a higher proportion of recycled cotton because it will make quality requirements. From memory I think you can almost go up to 100% recycled cotton if it's a yarn being used in denim. Mud jeans in particular have styles created with GOTS organic cotton and post consumer recycled cotton.


The fifth key area is around chemicals and dyes. Brands are starting to ban chemicals such as potassium permanganate, and bleaching agents, hydrochlorus acid and sodium hypochlorite in favour of more eco friendly treatments. Azo dyes and hydrosulfites are also on the list of things brands and making sure they don't use and certificates such as Green screen, Oeko-tex 100 and Bluesign are the trusted names in this area. Brands are looking at the chemicals that are used right through the whole product development process from fabric sizing to dyes and dye processes as well.


In terms of dyes, Archroma has signed a deal with Stony Creek colours, which produces traceable natural Indigo dyes. And they're going to market those and scale that product as a plant based pre reduced Indigo. Stoney Creek extracts its dye from its own indigofera plant varieties that are grown in partnership with family farms as a regenerative rotational crop. It's the first ever plant based alternative to synthetic pre reduced Indigo and Levi's will partner in a pilot programme to use the Indigold at scale. Dystar is another indigo dye brand that are able to eliminate hydrosulfite and are certified to Oeko-tex 100. Wranglers Indigood foam dyeing process uses 100% less water and wastewater is reduced by more than 60%. And also within this space Boyish jeans uses Candiani's Indigo juice technology, which is a dye technique that allows for dyes to be more easily washed away, which saves on water and chemicals. And also within that Indigo juice technology, the fabric is sized with Kitotex, which is a natural polymer that replaces conventional chemicals. It eliminates microplastics and they say it ensures a significant reduction in water and energy used in the production process. Jack and Jones are another brand making progress in this area and they're using artistic milliners "crystal clear" technology, where all chemicals are GOTS certified and they claim a water saving of 70%.


The sixth and final area I grouped into innovations, so things around sandblasting and just other innovations in terms of colour removal, I put in this little category. So one area is ozones, and there are new technology that you can use in the water and it can bleach more quickly than chemicals and stone washing. Also that ozonized water can be easily de-ozonized by ultraviolet radiation after laundering. It reports low energy costs because the process is done at room temperature as well. Basically, ozones are used in replace of bleach, and one particular brand Oz-One powder, I think it's pronounced, they say that it's chlorine and potassium permanganate free. So it's a more eco friendly way of bleaching back fabric. Sandblasting is a traditional process that poses significant health risks due to fine particles that can get into people's lungs. But aside from that, doing that process on one pair of jeans would take about 20 to 30 minutes. Whereas with the new technology in laser, it's a much much safer method being used and also takes only 90 seconds per pair of jeans. And another area of innovation that I came across was factories using semi automatic sewing processes and robotic spraying, which is pretty amazing.


So these are just some of the main areas that brands are talking about. But if you really wanted to get an insight into the innovation happening at Factory level, I recommend you check out a factory called Sai-tex. The original business was in Vietnam but they've recently opened up another factory in Los Angeles. And it's one that consistently kept coming up in many brands when they were talking about their sustainability efforts in denim. Brands such as J Crew Madewell, Edwin, Outerknown, and Everlane.


Apparently, they've got the only bluesign certified laundry in the world accredited to level three ZDCH criteria, which is a list of banned chemicals, with a green planet powered by renewable energy and a wastewater recycling system. They've also recently integrated a fabric mill which uses no fresh water that runs off renewable energy and even has a hydroponic farming system and organic farm fields that they say will produce six tonnes of clean vegetables per year to feed employees and local communities. So I highly recommend you have a look at that. I'm not affiliated of course, I just think it's a great example of a business taking a holistic approach right down to regenerative farming.


As a recap, the areas of focus that I've grouped together were: one, water two, organic cotton, three biodegradability and compostability, four recycled yarns and components, five chemicals and dyes and six innovations.


So hopefully that's given you a bit of an insight into what's happening in the denim category. And maybe some hope that there are some really great initiatives in the whole denim making process that are lessening the impact. Again, a reminder that I'll be planning on offering some exclusive content to my newsletter subscribers, so make sure you're signed up to that you can head to

belindahumphrey.com and you'll find the show notes and any links on the website as well in the podcast section. Thanks so much for listening. See you next time.


Thanks for listening to the Fashion Unearthed podcast. If you want to get in touch head over to belindahumphrey.com or you can find me on Instagram @belindahumphrey_


Disclaimer: Whilst every effort is made to ensure that information is accurate at the time of recording, much like the fashion industry itself, this information may change. 



More Posts