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The denim market is evolving, enter the era of responsible design

By Don-Alvin Adegeest

9 Mar 2021

The average pair of jeans was once a detriment to the environment, with every stage of production a sustainability hazard. From cotton production using large amounts of water (25,000 litres per kg), to using dangerous pesticides to grow the cotton, to chemicals used for finishing garments.

It is no state secret how denim goes through a harsh chemical dyeing and finishing process, beginning with what gives the fabric its signature indigo color (originally a plant-based dye, but today largely replaced with a synthetic version). After dyeing, fabrics are repeatedly treated and washed with a variety of chemicals, like bleach, to soften, fade, or texturize the fabric. Most of our favorite shades and styles—acid-washed, distressed, light-washed—require additional treatments and chemicals. All in all, producing a single pair of jeans requires an immense amount of water and energy and creates significant pollution, says the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

When demand changes, production must adapt

Much criticism has been directed at denim producers, ranging from environmentalists to a more informed generation of consumers. Eco-friendly jeans have until now been in the minority, but brands are feeling the pressure and a new era of sustainably made jeans is helping to phase out legacy processes, replacing them with innovative, low-impact production methods.

The most obvious eco-friendly denim is making jeans from upcycled and repurposed materials. While problematic for large conglomerates, small batch production and limited capsule ranges can be a commercial driver for smaller brands and designers. Repurposing indigo cotton deadstock or patchworking vintage denims into new styles reduces waste and eliminates the harsh dyeing and finishing processes.

Launder with care

Traditional methods of denim washes to get an aged and worn-in look were detrimental to the environment as they required harsh chemicals and copious liters of water. New solutions include using ozone machines, which uses ozone gas to naturally bleach down garments. One leader in the field is an Italian sustainable chemical company called Officina+39. It recently debuted Oz-One Powder, a treatment that allows laundries to achieve bleached, distressed or acid-wash looks on garments in an environmentally friendly way that is comparable to ozone, using conventional machines without water.

Accordding to the Sourcing Journal, the pandemic has inspired its own set of fashion trends, one of which is “lived-in” jeans that can only be developed in one of two ways: by actually wearing them in, or through innovative finishing methods that mimic the look. Though traditional finishing technologies involve pumice stones, potassium permanganate (PP) spray or other reportedly harmful practices, a new system was recently developed with safety and the environment in mind.

Called the Jecostone System, it was created by Italian abrasives company Itexa Group after four years of collaboration with laundry experts. Two products come together to create the system: Jecostone, an abrasive multi-fiber carpet that covers the entire drum of an industrial washing machine, and Jecorock, an abrasive pad just 7 centimeters in diameter that works freely inside the machine in a similar fashion to pumice stones.

The lightweight and long-lasting active abrasion produces unique effects on cotton, denim, knitwear and leather—including the popular ’80s-inspired stonewash effect for denim and a softer hand feel for knitwear. The system is already being adopted by supply-chain partners throughout the industry, including Diesel, which executes most of its production in Tunisia with Jecorocks.

The technology is currently on track to becoming circular as soon as it reaches the minimum volume required. It plans to recollect all of the exhausted material at the end of its life and re-use it for different purposes such as road pavement and thermal insulation.

Images: Oz-One jeans, Jecostone jeans