This week, a look at the potential for a waste-fueled fashion industry, including a check-in on denim’s circularity efforts.

The denim industry is doing damage control. 

After decades of bad PR and being called the “most polluting” garment, denim-focused brands are making headway in becoming more sustainable. That’s largely been driven by a combination of collaboration, prioritization and expanded opportunities to scale.

Even fast-denim brands are making progress, with Guess announcing this week an expansion of its sustainability goals, based on great progress. And according to a manufacturer, Zara is “ahead of the game” on denim sustainability.

“It’s pushing to make more of its styles sustainable,” said Sarah Ahmed, founder of 4-year-old denim brand Warp+Weft. Ahmed’s family owns a B2B denim factory in Pakistan, where it also produces Warp+Weft and fellow house brand DL1961.  

Within the last year, more consumers have become thoughtful about their purchases, and have also embraced sweatpants. Now, denim companies are increasingly shining the light on the work they’ve done to clean up their acts — even if that’s been confined to a small assortment. They’re campaigning to repair their image with marketing that rejects old, negative notions about their business, while ensuring they have ample evidence to back their sunny, circular claims.

On Thursday, AG launched The Jean of Tomorrow, a capsule collection composed of 100% biodegradable versions of three of its most popular styles. On the same day, Levi’s introduced its new “Buy better, wear longer” marketing focus, calling attention to its impact reduction and product durability. And in March, Gap debuted Generation Good, a campaign spotlighting its most sustainable styles to date.

Getting to this state has been a process, and the denim industry is still far from green. All of the brand executives interviewed for this story stressed that their sustainability goals are a work in progress: Ahmed said that, within two years, her family’s company aims to be “completely circular” and Cradle to Cradle certified. Currently, each pair of jeans it produces features 20% recycled or regenerative fibers, versus 100%. Gap, which announced last month that it had surpassed its goal of making 75% of its denim via its water-saving Washwell process, reaching 91%, and is also focused on circularity. 

“A shift away from linear business models to more circular ones is not just in our future, but it’s the direction our industry needs to [go] to truly embrace sustainability and address the climate crisis,” said Michele Sizemore, svp of global product development at Gap.

Meanwhile, Levi’s products have 83% sustainable attributes, including organic cotton, said Jeff Hogue, chief sustainability officer at Levi Strauss & Co. “Now we’re trying to figure out the sustainability attributes we want to see in those products, to offer [customers products via] a hierarchy of ‘good,’ ‘better,’ ‘best,’” he said. 

Where the most steps forward have been made have been where collaboration has ensued — in-house, between brands and even across industries.

Hogue said the “Buy better, wear longer” campaign is “not just a sustainability-led initiative and not just a marketing-led initiative,” but rather a Levi’s-wide initiative. 

“All the most important departments are around the table, trying to figure out exactly what it’s going to take to deliver on our promises. We’re also deciding where we want to go as a company, in terms of our circular economy approaches,” he said. “[We’ve agreed that] it’s about using products more, designing products to be made again, and ensuring that products are made from safe, recycled or renewable inputs.”

For its part, to learn from 80-plus denim experts beyond those on staff, Gap joined Frame, American Outfitters and Reformation, among dozens of others, in taking part in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Jeans Redesign. Set to wrap next month, the project aims to educate brands, as part of a longer-term effort to eliminate the harmful processes involved in denim production. The brands on board were tasked with creating and then selling a circular denim line.    

“It challenged us to think differently about design and production decisions, from fibers to fabric to the trims we use in denim,” said Sizemore. “It also challenged us to work differently, collaborating [across teams] and working through hurdles with our suppliers.” 

Sizemore said the momentum from the project led to applying learnings across the company’s wider product assortment. 

Meanwhile, Ahmed said brands “like the Zaras and the Mangos of the world” are flocking to her family’s 30-year-old factory, despite that competitors are running the show. And that’s in large part because its scale provides a comparatively affordable means to sustainability. The company has been focused on technology, sustainability and performance from day one. 

“Competition is one thing, but at the end of the day, it’s the planet at stake,” she said, adding that she expects more brands to come together more often in the future. “If your real intention is to make jeans the best way, then you’re going to start looking at the options,” she said. “And it’s only a matter of time before you start taking those options.”

Ahmed’s family had a jump on the competition: “Ten years ago, when an average pair of jeans were using 1,500 gallons of water to make, we were using less than 10, and then we were recycling 90-95% of that.” The company was also using innovative fibers, and less dye and energy.  And the factory was run on solar power. “Our net [profit] was very low then,” she said. 

“We [now] have a sustainable campus and a recycling facility exclusively focused on making regenerative, high-performance fibers,” she said. “We take back old plastic, old denim — we basically buy garbage.” Ahmed said that her family produces “a lot of” the denim made in Pakistan, which accounts for one-third of the world’s total denim production. “We’re in charge of a million pairs of jeans every 35 days.” 

Other companies are looking beyond the industry for support. Hogue said Levi’s linked with circularity and sustainability accelerator Fashion For Good earlier this month to do just that. As a member, Levi’s has the chance to pilot within its supply chain the technologies of sustainability “startups and innovators.” Doing so offers the company an “economy of scale,” in terms of navigating impact reduction.

“Sustainability is not free,” said Hogue, noting Levi’s additional advantage of having its Wellthread innovation lab, allowing it to constantly test production processes and determine their ability to scale. 

“If we had more brands going down this path and more collaboration, it would be [easier],” he said. “Sustainability is the balance of social, environmental and financial objectives — so we have to create things that consumers want, and we have to grow the top line to be successful.” 

As for sustainability progress across the industry, Hogue said that there’s been an uptick in brands taking meaningful action, particularly in the last five years.

Ahmed agreed, adding that even the questionable and overhyped efforts serve the industry well. “All that marketing creates awareness, and awareness makes customers more conscious of the need for change,” she said.

3 questions: Pangaia Collective on using pollution to make clothes

On Tuesday, Pangaia — best known for its celeb-loved sweats — released a fashion capsule featuring Air-Ink. The ink, developed by MIT spinoff Graviky Labs, is made from particles sourced from air pollution. For the collection, Pangaia used the ink to create the printed blocks of text that have become a signature of its styles. Below, members of the Pangaia Collective, who asked to not be named individually, discuss the partnership and potential for fashion x waste. 

What inspired the collaboration with Graviky Labs?
It was born from a relationship between Pangaia chief innovation officer Dr. Amanda Parkes and Graviky Labs founder Anirudh Sharma, who are friends from their time as graduate students at the MIT Media Lab. Pangaia often looks to source materials from areas where there is an abundance of resources and also to turn waste into value. So there was a natural fit for Pangaia to work with Air-Ink and also to integrate it into the supply chain.

What’s the potential for Air-Ink in fashion?
Pangaia plans to continue using Air-Ink in future collections. And, as it scales, it can seamlessly become a sustainable standard for all black ink printing; Air-Ink is a viable replacement for chemical-based inks. As more companies adopt this innovation, it will reduce the cost for production and, as such, it has the potential to become widely used.

Is trash the future of fashion?
If we are to address the climate emergency, then that is the only future. We need to be inventive in our approach to waste and circular in our thinking. At Pangaia, we are at the start of our circularity journey, but we’re already working to employ more circular principles, minimize resource consumption, eliminate waste and extend the life of our products.  Our grape leather was actually born out of a desire to reclaim waste from the Italian winemaking industry. And now this capsule shows that even air pollution can be repurposed and worn.

Reading List 

Inside our coverage

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The pre-order model is catching on among fashion brands.

Saucony is preparing for a Roaring Twenties-like H2.

What we’re reading

Fashion startups are adopting the Stitch Fix model

Gucci is bouncing back.

Asian consumers are warming up to luxury resale.