With over a global denim jeans market forecast to be worth around 87.4 billion U.S. dollars, almost everyone owns at least one pair. However, transcending age, gender, class, and personal style, this wardrobe staple does have a downside: it is not exactly an ecologically sound garment. With a reputation for using processes that sometimes involve dangerous industrial practices, denim manufacturers are turning to new technologies to help them progress towards greener manufacturing practices that will allow them to operate more responsibly and sustainably than ever before.

The Back Story

Invented in the 1800s, although Levi Strauss first popularised the denim material, it was not until the 1930s, when the Hollywood “cowboy lifestyle” romanticised jeans, that the previously informal trousers went mainstream. Symbolising individuality, jeans continued to play a pivotal role in different subcultures throughout the 50s and into the 90s.

In its 150-year history, jeans have gone from humble beginnings to a huge industry, but it was not until 00’s that the real story of how jeans are made started to work its way into the public consciousness. When the energy and water-intensive techniques were exposed, the true cost of producing a single pair of jeans became a revelation that many consumers could no longer ignore. As a result, the denim industry has felt the pressure to change its dark narrative to one that encompasses an ecosystem centred on sustainability.

Image Credit – Levi Strauss

When Crisis Creates Opportunity

According to Greenpeace, it takes an eye-watering 7,000 litres of water to produce a pair of jeans. To put that number into perspective, if a person drinks three litres of water per day, making one pair of jeans will equal a person’s water intake over 2333 days. So it is no wonder that some denim manufacturers and brands have turned to greenwash tactics to appease critics. The downside is that protest groups Extinction Rebellion and Fashion Action are unafraid to bring any form of greenwashing to light. An example of this is when protesters covered an H&M in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, with green paint as a protest against “greenwashing”.

However, as consumer awareness of those underhand approaches has grown, the industry has begun to face reality with a lack of standardisation and control on sustainability issues associated with denim manufacturing; change can no longer be just a marketing exercise. Moreover, as sourcing and supply chain practices come under even greater scrutiny post-COVID, there is no better time to invest in actionable solutions. High up on the list of possibilities to explore will be new production technologies, which could help to avert the crisis by making responsible raw material sourcing and treatment practices more accessible and normalising a more sustainable cycle of denim production.

Nevertheless, some of that technology still needs to be commercialised, and producers are already hungry for change, which is placing a burden of development on technology providers to keep pace with industry demands. Romain Narcy, Partner at Ereks Garment – Blue Matters, believes: “New technology and innovation are necessary because we need to change how we produce jeans. We need to move from linear to circular models. Producers who do not produce with these principles in mind will suffer a lot.”

Ereks Garment Blue Matters Responsible Production Platform. Image Credit: Ereks Garment – Blue Matters

Narcy is one of the leading voices trying to change denim manufacturing practices. The good news is that he is not alone in thinking that the denim industry needs to pivot towards new technologies to reduce its negative impact on the environment. Ayush Singh from sustainable denim brand MUD Jeans believes that continual investment in emerging technologies could help the industry adopt the circular business model that it currently advertises but often falls short of and could allow everyone to “clean up after their own mess”.

“It is time we focus on finding waste solutions for the denim industry”, explains Singh. “For example, water discharge from manufacturing creates a harmful byproduct called sludge”. Sludge is a mix of sludge from Natural Pumice Stones/Indigo dyes and other chemicals used during the wash process. Singh continues: “But with technological investment, some factories are now converting this sludge into bricks which can be used to build affordable homes. Therefore, no longer having a negative environmental impact.”

Narcy also has an opinion on the relatively quick environmental win that replacing a traditional tool with a modern one could deliver, without compromising on the result: “Sludge can be reduced by replacing Pumice Stones with Eco-stones and innovative chemicals such as enzymes that give similar stone effects as natural pumice Stones do”.

Also turning crisis into opportunity is large scale denim manufacturer Saitex. Striving towards a greener future, Saitex’s objective is to face challenges head-on and bring responsible manufacturing to the forefront. Undeterred by ongoing challenges and the pace of commercialisation of new solutions, Saitex continues to make a name for itself by pushing through boundaries and harnessing meaningful innovations. For example, the Vietnam based company has opened a factory in Los Angeles with pioneering water-saving measures that promise to cut the average impact of a single pair of jeans from 80 litres down to just 1.5. In addition, the water-recycling technology allows for the continued use of the resource in the washing and finishing process.

image credit – nudie jeans

As demand for sustainable manufacturing gains momentum Saitex is not the only company leading the charge, Nudie has also taken a prominent role in the denim industry’s journey. Winner of the Sustainable Fashion Award 2018, Nudie’s holistic approach has led them to create their sustainable material tool to clarify how they define sustainable materials. As a result, the Gothenburg-based brand not only leads in research and innovation, but they have also kickstarted the conversation on accountability, responsibility, and sustainability within the denim industry.

Sustainable Manufacturing, An Unattainable Dream?

There is now a growing tribe of sustainable warriors, like Nudie, determined to change the denim industry for the better. However, as well as their intentions to take a sustainable approach to producing jeans, they have to tread carefully regarding the complexities of calling themselves ‘sustainable’. This is because the word ‘sustainable’ can mean different things – responsible sourcing, recycled materials, water-conscious and ethical ethos – and consumers are now demonstrating a clearer understanding of how those components differ from one another.

One way to jump over that hurdle is to partner with solutions like Jeanologia. Jeanologia has made a name for itself for developing technologies and eco-efficient production models to make the brand’s stake a stronger claim to the word “sustainable”. One of their solutions is EIM, an Environmental Impact Measurement. It is a platform developed to monitor the environmental impact of garment finishing processes in an efficient and economically viable way. In addition, it is a self-accreditation tool aimed to improve the environmental performance of jeans finishing at the manufacturing stage.

Inside Saitex, laser technology is used to create a worn-in look on a pair of jeans with minimal environmental impact. Photo credit- Whitney Bauck – Fashionista

Also leading by innovation is Calik Denim. Established in Malatya as an integrated yarn and weaving factory in 1987, the Turkey-based company has been providing added value to the denim industry, environment and people since 1987. “We invest in leading innovations in the denim industry; we develop innovative products to fulfil our customers’ needs while promoting sustainability consciously. Our goal, as Calık Denim, is always to be “the first to come to mind” in the denim world”, shared Calik Denim on their site.

Hoping to impact denim manufacturing positively, Calik Denim, in 2020, introduced sustainability-driven Washpro Technology. It is an innovation designed to reduce the environmental impact throughout the denim life cycle. In addition, Washpro technology promises long-lasting freshness for garments, thanks to Calik’s new fibre innovations.

Then there are dyeing innovations. Shockingly, the denim industry uses over 45,000 tons of synthetic indigo a year, with over 84,000 tons of sodium hydrosulphite as a reducing agent and 53,000 tons of lye. It is also worth noting that according to the European Parliament, textile production is estimated to be responsible for about 20% of global clean water pollution from dyeing and finishing products.

The good news is that there are alternative dyeing methods designed to counteract the devastating effects of traditional indigo dyes on the environment and people.

One of the innovations tackling the problems with dyes and chemicals during production is Dry Indigo. It is a solution that can reduce water consumption by 98% and chemical use by almost 90%. In addition, Archroma’s “Advanced Denim” solution has already been adopted by American clothing company Patagonia. It is a solution that also uses 25% less CO2 than conventional jeans.

Another innovation playing a pivotal role in normalising responsible manufacturing is a dying technology called N-Denim. Developed at Candiani Denim, the technology has been engineered to increase the penetration of dyeing agents into the yarn using a fraction of water and chemicals, making it possible to achieve denim with highly concentrated shades.

More organic alternatives dyes include Nanocellulose. Created from wood pulp like that used in the paper industry and with the help of new technology, the dye is then mixed with indigo particles with nanofibres. Then deposits on the surface of the textile, essentially ‘glueing’ the colour in place.

Although some argue natural dyes lack the vibrancy of synthetic dyes, what makes them appealing is that they are not harmful to the environment. Obtained from renewable resources and with eco-friendly characteristics, natural dyes are biodegradable without applying an oxidant or reductant agent. With the denim industry dependent on indigo dyes, an alternative is offered by Archroma. Besides helping brands reduce water consumption, Archroma created a range of dyes called Earth colours. Made up to 100 per cent of natural raw materials, denim brand G-Star Raw have used Archroma’s pigments to create naturally dyed jeans.

Sustainable manufacturing has also played a vital role in advancing sustainable materials concerning the production of denim. Pioneering high-quality denim fabric in this space is ISKO. They have introduced cottonised denim made without the use of any cotton. The manufacturing company has also introduced fabrics made from eco-friendly raw materials such as organic cotton, Better Cotton, pre-consumer recycled cotton and post-consumer recycled polyester from PET bottles.

On materials, Ayush Singh from MUD Jeans recommends using GOTS certified cotton or post-consumer recycled cotton. Warning against traditional stone wash and sandblasting wash techniques, he advised: “They have been replaced with a laser-based process and modern machines with abrasive parts attached to the inside to produce the same effect as stone wash”.

Steps Towards Manufacturing Responsibly

There is no potential for change without risk, a truth driving a lot of mills and factories to change their resource-heavy processes usually associated with manufacturing denim to better meet brand and consumer expectations, despite an initial up-front cost and disruption for them.

“Circularity principles need to be implemented throughout all stages of a value chain to make the circular economy a success. From design to production, all the way to the consumer”, shared one of the Lead MEP’s on the circular economy action plan Jan Huitema, Renew Europe, the Netherlands.

Tricia Carey, Director of Global Business Development – Denim at Lenzing Fibers, adds: “Moving towards responsible manufacturing; you have to be able to assess what you currently have, measure the impact and make a goal for the direction a company wants to go.”

MUD Factory. Image Credit: MUD Jeans

Lenzing is not the only company driven to make socially responsible manufacturing the new standard; denim brand Levi Strauss & Company has also been implementing several practices to reduce energy, water, and chemicals to establish a new baseline for producing their signature garments.

Another way to manufacture responsibly is by investing in on-demand manufacturing. Although on-demand at scale has proven elusive so far, it is a model that solves two problems: unsold inventory and the need for accurate forecasting. Pushing forward eco-friendly and ethical manufacturing, on-demand fuels new opportunities in the denim industry. Narcy believes strongly in making this switch: “We need to move from order-produce-sell model to sell-order-produce.” 

Lastly, manufacturing responsibly is, of course, not just about the product; it is also about the people who make it. “Brands that focus on making sure everyone involved in the supply chain works in safe conditions and are paid living wages is also responsible manufacturing. Happy jean makers make better jeans”, advises Singh.

Thinking along the same lines are Monkee Genes and Kuyichi. They are small companies taking significant steps to improve their production standards in developing countries from both the environmental and social side by ensuring that every person involved in the product’s supply chain is paid a decent living wage. Taking it that extra mile, Dutch brand Kuyichi also encourages farmers who supply organic cotton to become shareholders in their company.

Collaborations Changing and Reshaping Denim Manufacturing

Not trying to state the obvious here, but manufacturing responsibly should not be a task that treatment facilities and manufacturers take on alone. Instead, the different players in the denim industry – from retailers to raw material harvesters – need to be dependent on each other. This is why one way of accelerating change in denim manufacturing is through collaborations.

Denim-E x Jeanologia collab is an excellent example of a partnership that opened a few eyes. Working together to reduce its carbon footprint, Denim-E invested in Jeanologia Laser and E-flow machines that have been designed to transform denim manufacturing.

Then there is G-Star x Pharrell Williams x Bionic Yarn. The collaboration was the first to introduce a denim collection manufactured using recycled plastics. Successfully mixing heritage with modern technology, ‘Raw for the Oceans’ made a great case on style meets sustainability. The downside is that recycled plastic can not be a long-term solution. Besides adding to the microplastic problem and being quite costly to recycle, plastic can only be recycled about 2-3 times before its quality decreases. Unlike metal and​​ glass, which can be recycled infinitely, recycled plastic will degrade to the point where it can no longer be used. Additionally, scientists estimate it takes somewhere between 450 -1,000 years to decompose both virgin and recycled plastic.

Another great example is the Jeans Redesign by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This project has helped brands, mills, and manufacturers establish guidelines to make their denim production have a lower environmental impact, better durability, and circular design principles in mind.

Also hoping to help make the denim supply chain become greener, the Amsterdam Denim deal was an international collaboration introduced in 2020. Focused on making post-consumer recycling of textiles the new standard in the industry, it successfully gathered different parties such as the Dutch ministry of environment, municipalities, brands, collectors, recyclers, technology partners, denim mills and garment manufacturers in order to maximise the number of jeans that contain post-consumer recycled materials. Championing the initiative, Romain Narcy admitted: “We need collaborations like these to start and accelerate the change.”

IMAGE credit – mfs – bluzone

From a sustainability angle, there is also Nivogo. Based in Istanbul, Nivogo has come up with an exciting business model that promotes a circular economy. Taking partnering up to a whole new level, Nivogo has made agreements with various brands to take their problematic products and refurbish them. Once restored, the products are given new prices and sold. Nivo takes a commission out of every sale.

Your Denim Manufacturing’s Future Need Not be a Sombre Affair

Ready to start your sustainability journey? Why not start with checking out United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. They provide a framework for social and environmental priorities, making it easier to take steps towards manufacturing responsibly.

It is also worth deciding ahead of time which material options you would like to explore. A popular choice is the recycling of old fibres into new fabrics. You only have to look at factories like Recover to understand that reusing old materials is considered one of the most sustainable ways to transform the denim industry because it is circular.

Then there is biodegradable stretch denim. It has been attracting the attention of brands like Stella McCartney and Kings of Indigo. Its pull is that biodegradable stretch denim is marketed as a sustainable solution.

First introduced to the market by Candiani, biodegradable stretch denim is made from biodegradable plant-based materials. When compared with traditional fabric, it sounds excellent. Still, like most innovations, it does have a downside: it is blended with polyester. This is a problem that manufacturers are working to remove from the supply chain while also hoping to make the technology inexpensive to be scaled up and make a difference.

If you want to be inspired from the brand point of view, I recommend keeping your eye on Kuyichi, Kings of Indigo, Thought Clothing, Lov Joi, Unspun, and Armed Angels.

Eager to experience innovative tech tools designed to support responsible manufacturing? Check out Textile Exchange, SAC, Canopy, Changing Markets, and ZDHC.

I also advise you to be guided by brands like Everlane. The American clothing retailer is known for making its supply chain transparent and environmentally responsible. Another trailblazer to watch for is the aforementioned MUD Jeans. They make some of their products from up to 40% post-consumer recycled cotton, and when you are done with your MUD jeans, you can send them back to them, and they will recycle the fabric into new jeans.

More recently the Competition and Markets Authority(CMA) warned UK businesses that they have until the New Year 2022 to make sure their environmental claims comply with the law. On their warning, Andrea Coscelli, Chief Executive of the CMA, explained: “We’re concerned that too many businesses are falsely taking credit for being green, while genuinely eco-friendly firms don’t get the recognition they deserve”.

If you want to check whether your environmental claims are genuinely green, denim expert Tricia Carey advises those already exploring ethical production and material to not rely on certification alone to determine compliance. Instead, she cautions: “Ask questions and educate not just yourself, your workers and your customers too.”

In the end, even with knowledge of the controversy regarding its manufacturing, jeans are probably still the most worn item in many wardrobes. However, just because they have stood the test of time does not mean that the denim industry has the luxury of improving its manufacturing practices steadily. On the contrary, adopting a holistic approach and using new technologies is being driven by a pressing need to transform manufacturing methods for the better and to future-proof an industry long overdue for an upgrade.