What is Patagonia doing to transform the filthy business of denim?

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Cool, blue and ubiquitous, denim has long symbolised nonchalant, casual style. But the fabric’s manufacturing process puts a hefty strain on the planet. Oliver Haenlein cottons on to one company’s attempts to do things differently.

Patagonia is out to change the denim business. The company’s new campaign’s catchphrase reads: “Because Denim Is Filthy Business,” and there is no denying that transformation is badly needed in the industry.

The CO2 production and water usage involved in creating just one pair of jeans is staggering, and the processes that create particular styles, such as sandblasting, bleaching and stonewashing, all bring with them burdens on our planet. Add to that the environmental costs of synthetic pesticides, fertilisers, defoliants and GMOs, and we find that the denim industry is causing serious damage.

Patagonia has decided to pursue a less harmful direction, which it believes is in line with its wider mission statement: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

The production of conventional denim demands enormous volumes of water and energy since synthetic indigo, used for dye by most producers, doesn’t adhere well to denim. Therefore the processes of dying, rinsing and the washing of garments are extremely resource intensive.

Advanced denim

However Patagonia says its new advanced denim has replaced indigo with an innovative dye process, using sulphur dyestuffs that bond more easily to denim. The outcome, according to Patagonia, is a production line that uses 84 per cent less water, 30 per cent energy, and emits 25 per cent less CO2 than conventional indigo processes.

Mark Little, Patagonia’s product line manager for sportswear, tells Salt about the changes: “Everybody has different production cycles but we found that in the conventional dying process you’re using multiple baths to dye the fabric; anywhere between 10- 14 dye baths to get it to adhere to the fabric. With the new process, we use two. Water is a precious resource, so if there’s an opportunity to reduce usage for any product or apparel, then that’s a critical thing to explore.”

Denim itself has always been a progressive product, he adds: “Denim was always a form of anarchy; James Dean was a disruption in creative culture, then there was the punk rock era. They were major disruptors and denim was on the curve of it. Now we are trying to disrupt the way we think about denim.”

Organic cotton

Conventional cotton is thought of as one of the dirtiest fibres in the fabric industry, and Patagonia has therefore been careful to use only organic cotton since 1996, free from the chemicals which poison our air and waters. Startlingly, presently less than 2 per cent of the world’s cotton is organic.

Little adds that Patagonia is aiming to have a positive influence and lead the industry in a better direction. “Our goal is not to take over the denim business, it’s about showing people a different way of doing things; a cleaner way of doing things.

“We’re not pointing the finger at anyone, we’re pointing the finger at ourselves and changing things. We’re simply trying to say there is an alternative out there and it is maybe worth taking a look at it. It’s about influence and education.”

The technology can be applied to other fabrics beyond denim, and the company is already looking at applying the dye process to toiles and canvases, while exploring other textile innovations such as bio-dying and natural dying. “This really just marks the start of textile innovation and we really feel committed to exploring how we’re going to dye all of our garments in the future,” adds Little.

The company makes a pretty convincing argument for the environmental benefits of its new denim products. Beyond that, buying a pair of Patagonias appears to have a positive social impact too.

In an industry where workers are among the poorest paid in the world, it’s good to know that your clothing is Fair Trade certified for sewing. Patagonia says it pays workers “a premium” for each piece of Fair Trade clothing, which can be used to improve their communities and standard of living.

We’re sold, and if Patagonia’s history of innovation is anything to go by, it is not unlikely that other companies will start to follow suit.

It’s time for change

Little believes it’s time for the clothing industry, and for industry as a whole, to start reflecting more deeply on its processes.

“It’s a time for change and I think people are starting to speak. I think a revolution is beginning. Generations are starting to understand unsustainable growth and consumption and disposability.

“There’s a call to action now and through education and through doing what we’ve always done, which is trying to be a leader and disrupting the way we go about making product and speaking about the environmental issues at hand, it will create that revolution. But it’s going to take more than just Patagonia; it’s going to take other brands to step up and say ‘organic growth and sustainable growth are going to be more important than quarterly earnings’.”

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