Sustainable. Eco. Green. Conscious. Recycled. We regularly read these words on the tags of our clothes, but what do they actually mean? How do you know if what you are buying is actually good for the planet, and what do you need to look out for when shopping?
To clear up any confusion, we enlisted industry experts help us compile the ultimate guide to building a sustainable wardrobe - starting with denim.
In a bid to make the denim industry greener, many labels (including Reformation, Slvrlake, Levi's and Belstaff) are working hard to create a more sustainable future for their respective companies, and to make it as simple as possible for its customers to shop green.
Reformation is focusing on traceability, with its aptly named ‘Farm to Butt’ denim line, which allows customers to trace their denim back to its roots. Traceability is fundamental to the project, as it shows the lifecycle of each product, meaning it's easier to ensure each piece has been made sustainably. Working with FibreTrace, it features the first-of-its-kind traceability technology into the fibre, so you can trace the denim all the way back to the climate-positive cotton farm in Australia where its made.
Alongside traceability, the actual materials used are just as important. Celebrity favourite brand Slvrlake (seen on the likes of Joan Smalls, Kendall Jenner and Hailey Bieber) uses hemp fabric that’s 100 per cent biodegradable and non-toxic. Hemp, which is grown without harmful chemicals, is considered one of the most ecologically friendly fibres because it uses half as much land as cotton does.
Choosing pieces that are built to last is also vital for a sustainable wardrobe. Shoppers should seek to invest in key pieces that will stand the test of time, rather than buying poorly made alternatives that need replacing regularly. Belstaff's collaboration with London-based atelier Blackhorse Lane showed with its eco-concious denim line how important the concept of longevity is. The atelier, which manufactures selvedge and organic raw denim garments, works with a focus on sustainability. Selvedge denim is particularly hardwearing; it ages well and often gets better over time as it moulds to fit the wearer perfectly.
But what happens once you've finished with your garment? What you do with your old denim is just as important as shopping smartly - ensuring your clothes don't end up in landfill is crucial. Levi's WellThread sustainable collection demonstrates how circularity is also very important, by ensuring every pair of jeans is fully recyclable.
To put it simply, when shopping for sustainable denim, there are four main factors to consider before you make your purchase:
Traceability - make sure you know where your garment has come from
Materials - read up on what your garment is made from and how that can impact the environment
Longevity - invest in good quality products that will last a lifetime
Circularity - check that the item can be recycled and given a new lease of life once you're done
Below, we meet Reformation’s Kathleen Talbot; Slvrlake’s Louise Edgley; Levi's Paul Dillinger; Belstaff’s Sean Lehnhardt-Moore; and Blackhorse Lane founder Han Ates, who share what they've learnt about shopping sustainably.
What tips would you give our readers for shopping sustainable denim?
Louise Edgley, Slvrlake: "Lean into timeless silhouettes in quality fabrics that will just get better with age. Selecting styles and washes that complement pieces in your existing wardrobe will ensure you get the most out of your denim."
Han Ates, Blackhorse Lane: "As consumers, the best thing we can do is to be very considerate buyers: buy less and only buy things that we love and want to wear for years to come. Look for products designed for longevity, made of traceable, lower-impact materials, or those that are made with waterless dyeing and finishing processes."
Paul Dillinger, Levi's: "Start with a simple question: how much use will I get out of this? Then consider fabrication of the garment before you purchase and whether it can be recycled at the end of its life. You’re basically asking, will I wear this enough and keep it long enough to justify the water, the electricity, and the materials that were used to make it?"
What’s the biggest misconception about sustainable denim?
Louise Edgley, Slvrlake: "That quality and authenticity can't be achieved in denim sustainably - it's all down to the materials you use. All of our indigo denim at Slvrlake is crafted from organic Italian fabrics and all of our hardware and labels are crafted from recycled materials."
Kathleen Talbot, Reformation: "Price point is one of the biggest misconceptions. The product should reflect the true costs to people and the planet, and we can still deliver impact and a pair of jeans for less than £110. Limiting the number of steps, chemicals, energy, and water usage actually makes the jeans more affordable by reducing costs at the fabric and manufacturing level."
Why is regular denim bad for the environment?
Kathleen Talbot, Reformation: "Conventional denim is made using a water and chemical-intensive process. We don’t use traditional chemicals that are harmful and require extra water to wash them out of garments. For example, our popular Cynthia high-rise straight-leg jeans are made using 685 gallons less water than a conventionally produced pair of jeans."
Paul Dillinger, Levi's: "Our life cycle assessment and numerous similar studies since have documented the large quantities of water, energy and chemical that typically go into denim production. It’s often said that it’s a “thirsty” material to work with."
Are there any other ways to be greener when shopping for denim?
Louise Edgley, Slvrlake: "Buy better, buy less. Invest in classic silhouettes in quality fabrics built to stand the test of time. Sustainability shouldn’t finish at purchase. The way in which we care for our denim has an environmental impact as well as affecting the lifeline of your jeans. We recommend hanging to air between wears, spot clean with a damp cloth, then machine wash on a cold delicate spin cycle when necessary and always air dry."
Kathleen Talbot, Reformation: "The greenest ways to shop are always renting, researching, and buying vintage. Do your research on the companies you plan to buy from; make sure they are using best practices to create clothing that isn't harmful to the planet. There are platforms out there enabling you to easily check the impact of your favourite fashion brands on the issues you care about, like Good on You."
Sean Lehnhardt-Moore, Belstaff: "Buying a combination of sustainable pieces and second-hand denim is a realistic and practical way to make more conscious shopping decisions. Vintage denim can be brilliant - this is why we curated a selection of vintage denim. Care for your denim properly, upcycle, repair and even customise older pieces to give them new life."
Why is traceability so important when shopping sustainably?
Louise Edgley, Slvrlake: "Understanding the origin of a garment allows us to fully understand the environmental and social impact of creating it. This enables us to proactively respond to better practices and new technologies as they develop."
Kathleen Talbot, Reformation: "Supply chain traceability is the only way to truly ensure that you know what you are buying, and how sustainably it was made. By having true transparency and accountability right back to the raw materials stage of a garment, you can allow customers more autonomy in where they put their buying power."
Sean Lehnhardt-Moore, Belstaff: "Traceability is important for establishing authenticity. The industry has a long way to go, but it's about building upon every step in the right direction. Sharing these messages and showing traceability helps make shopping more consciously and sustainably easier for everyone."
Paul Dillinger, Levi's: "It enables us – and our interested stakeholders – to understand and track the impact of those programs on the environments and the communities touched by our value chain."
Has the appetite from buyers for sustainable denim grown in recent years?
Louise Edgley, Slvrlake: "We've all become aware of the environmental impact of our choices and have started to demand real change. The industry as a whole has begun to pivot toward sustainability. There is still more work to be done but there is big change on the horizon."
Kathleen Talbot, Reformation: "We all wear denim. It's one of the mainstays of most of our wardrobes. It's promising to see the expanding offering of sustainable denim in the marketplace, from the big high-street brands to smaller independent ones. With social media, consumers have become more aware of the ethical impact of their everyday lives. People are more empowered with information than ever before and can choose for themselves what they want to buy and from where."
Sean Lehnhardt-Moore, Belstaff: "The appetite for sustainable denim is definitely growing and picking up pace as we all become more informed. We're all learning more about the impact our lifestyle choices have on the world around us."
How can our readers tell if a brand is authentically sustainable?
Louise Edgley, Slvrlake: "Ask the question to the brand directly if in doubt. Some brands actively share and others do not but you can always direct message a brand to find out."
Kathleen Talbot, Reformation: "Unfortunately there's a lot of greenwashing in the industry at the moment. Buzz words like ‘natural’ or ‘biodegradable’ can perhaps misinform the customer into thinking a product is more sustainable than it is. Do thorough research."
Han Ates, Blackhorse Lane: “Look for brands with an active strategy to reduce their impact, which could include reports on progress or show targets. Communicating environmental and social impacts is a great step towards greater transparency in the fashion industry and empowering consumers to support great products.”
What do you see for the future of sustainable denim?
Kathleen Talbot, Reformation: "My vision is 100 per cent circular, climate-positive product. We hope that by constantly seeking out innovative technologies like FibreTrace, we will inspire other brands."
Paul Dillinger, Levi's: "A more sustainable denim industry is more thoughtful and intentional in design and product creation. We want to provide consumers with quality, more sustainable options – that require fewer resources, that are enduring styles and fabrications, that can ultimately be repaired, resold or recycled - and consumers have the power to demand this."
Han Ates, Blackhorse Lane: "The industry must move towards a more circular system, where components and textile waste can be re-purposed or biodegraded with minimum impact on the environment. We are hoping that as consumers learn more about how their denim garments are designed and made, they’ll discover the incredibly rich history of denimwear, and how beautiful, hardwearing and long-lasting denim can be.”
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