Denim is a fabric thats loved the world over. It’s said that at any one time, approximately 50 per cent of the global population is wearing a pair of jeans and at least 3.9 billion jeans are produced globally per year. But when you close your eyes and think about the jeans worn by millions around the world, you’ll most likely envision a pair that is light blue and vintage in appearance. This is where one of the biggest blue problems occurs.

Albeit die-hard raw denim enthusiasts, jeans are almost never developed with the intention of embracing their original state and colour. Nearly always finishes or after-treatments are applied in order to give the jeans a worn look. This finishing treatment can be a chemical one, a mechanical one or a combination of both.

Gigi Hadid in classic stone wash denim

Industrial wash and finish is one of the primary stages in the denim supply chain that has become a key focus for denim brands to reevaluate their environmental impact. It’s well documented that during the wash and finish process, also known as laundry, there are traditionally vast amounts of water and chemicals used to create a faded appearance. Chemicals like chlorine, potassium permanganate (PP) and Sodium hypochlorite are just a few of the hazardous chemicals used at this stage.

Consumers are largely unaware of the detrimental impact of pre-treated denim. But why should they know otherwise? Readymade vintage jeans have been the standard since the late 60s when stone washing was first introduced. And today, more than ever, stone-washed looks are the go-to for pretty much every style of jean out there.

Despite ecological warnings and little progress in sustainable innovation the success of stonewash has only grown since its inception in the late 60s. In fact the demand for the neo-vintage effect even lead manufacturers to discover another environmentally impactful technique, acid wash during the 1980s. While stone offered a readymade vintage appearance, acid wash championed an even bolder and sharper contrast, which made it an instant hit for punks, pop-stars and rebellious youth of the time.

Acid wash jeans have been a hit on the street for S/S 19

While the demand for stonewash has remained a constant since the 70s, acidwash’s graphic appearance and 80s connotations has meant the look has fluctuated over the years. Cut to 2019, and the fine-grained denim pattern began cropping up on runways again with Proenza Schouler, Isabel Marant, Chloé and Balmain utilising the trend in their 80s-inspired offerings. Social media dialogue among the eco-aware denim community sparked conversation around acid wash on the runway, and the demand it fuels for chemical-laden product, prompting brands to find new ways to create worn-in character.

The biggest environmental concerns of both stone and acid wash centre around water, in both the consumption, contamination and toxic discharge. It’s been well documented in the past that in certain denim-producing nations like China, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, toxic indigo sludge has entered rivers and streams, creating damage to the local wildlife. Jordan Nodarse, denim expert and founder of Boyish jeans, a premium jeans label in LA championed for its sustainable credentials explains, “PP and acid washes are acid based. That means that they need to be properly neutralised to bring jeans back to a neutral PH otherwise the garments will irritate consumers skin. Also, bleach/chlorine/hypochloride kills the good bacteria in fresh water streams.”

Arianna Bolzoni of OPS Artifex, a designer and wash specialist who works with denim brands and factories around the world has experienced first hand factories still operating without water treatment facilities. She explains that traditional stone wash requires 70+ ltrs of water simply to eliminate sand residues, and to achieve acid wash with light base color it requires 2/3 baths as the bleaching agent needs rotation to work effectively. Bolzoni believes that the root of the problem lies with brands who are developing jeans to be retailed below 50USD. “This is where we have to take action.” Bolzoni insists that if brands want to push sustainable production, they need to consider three crucial elements: socially conscious, environmentally responsible and the right price. “If one of those 3 pillars is missing then it cannot be defined sustainable.”

A worker at Saitex in Vietnam unloads drum of jeans after stone wash process. Saitex use renewable energy and recycle their water to reduce their impact

At Vietnam-based denim factory, Saitex, also known as the cleanest denim factory in the world, ninety-eight per cent of the water is recycled with the other two per cent lost due to evaporation. The factory who supplies big players such as J Crew, Everlane, Madewell, G Star Raw and Outerknown uses a filtration unit which ensures all the contaminated water is recycled and cleaned before its funnelled back into the space age laundry which utilises vertical washers, ozone technology and lasers to finish jeans. It’s not only right, but profitable too. In an interview with Barkers, founder Sanjeev Bahl explained “we started looking at every possible form of waste we generate, and how could we turn it into a profit. Our investments into recycling, they paid themselves off in less than six years. We made money on it. And then of course with energy, our strategies are also profitable. There again we broke even in six years.”

Big player Levi’s are too seeing return on investments from their FLX technology which they introduced in 2017. The computer-driven laser technology uses nothing but energy to replicate localised wear patterns without water, chemicals or stones. The company aims to roll out the program across the brands entire denim range and go completely chemical free by 2020.

Outside of laser technologies, Nodarse has been exploring and experimenting with various other alternatives to achieve that stonewash look for Boyish’s jeans. He cites “faux stone made from clay or polymers, e-flow and nano enzyme bubble technology” as just some of the new innovations available in the market. E-Flow and nano enzyme bubble technology are a form of ozone technology, which harnesses the natural bleaching capabilities of ozone gas to give a range of overall bleach effects with substantially reduced environmental impact.

Designed in Los Angeles, BOYISH uses ethical and sustainable practices when developing and manufacturing its product

Fabric performance has been one of the biggest challenges for brands adopting these new technologies at a commercial level, in particular achieving a look and feel that matches the character of the original that consumers have become accustomed to. Wash targets can dramatically fluctuate depending on yarn and fabric structure, with results often coming out more flat. But Nordarse believes that if fabrics are created in synergy with the new technologies, then the results can emulate, if not improve the original. “If you design your yarn and fabric to work with these technologies then you can achieve a very similar, if not better, wash with great high and low’s in the wash”, said Nodarse.

Likewise, Bolzoni has been developing responsible bulk production stone wash finishes by using simple spraying technology and enzyme on 2.3 usd fabrics. Bolzoni says the trick is “to fill the machine with less water, so that the weight of the wet garments themselves create abrasion against each other while spinning in the machine. We call this “bubble wash”.”  Another new technology Bolzoni has been implementing into her wash processes is specialist machines that have an abrasive layer in the tumbler, specifically Nostone by Tonello, which is used in combination with ozone and low impact chemicals.

Boyish jeans stonewash finishes emulate traditional processes so closely that its hard to differentiate the two to the untrained eye

Troy Strebe, a wash specialist based in LA, believes that when it comes to comparing the authentic stone and acid wash effects versus sustainable alternatives the short answer goes back to Ray Charles for coca cola “aint nothing like the real thing baby!” But in the same breath he questions, do consumers actually get it when its replaced by laser? Strebe concludes, “I have seen first hand the difference and to the trained eye it is evident but to the non trained eye is still up for debate.”

Bolzoni further supports this sentiment, emphasising that the average consumer that buys mass market and fast fashion doesn’t pay attention to the quality of the wash: “the average consumer has no idea if the whiskers are authentic and either can’t see if a jacket has been washed with real stone or just enzymes.” She believes that the average consumer cares about: “price, overall look, fit and fabric” so when brands develop and buy washes they should keep this in mind. Her conclusion is that we should not compare past and present; “what we can achieve today is simply different. Traditional stone and acid washes are dirty and polluting, today we can go greener: we are evolving.”

German-based legacy denim brand Closed denim has a long history with stone and acid wash, with its original founder and designer Francois Girbaud rumoured to being responsible for its introduction back in the late 70s. While the brand still leverages its past, it does so in a more responsible way. For the past 7 collections (2 years), Closed Denim Developer, Uwe Kippschnieder has been developing the brands ‘A Better Blue’ initiative, a program of low impact denim, created in Italy, using the latest dye and wash innovations. Kippschnieder believes that the results they have achieved are indistinguishable, if not better than conventional wash techniques.

Closed denim will introduce a ground-breaking wash treatement that replicates the look of bleach using a special organic bleach and bio enzyme treatment

Kippschnieder feels that much of the success of their washes are down to the close relationships they have developed with both the laundries and chemical companies they work with. For the S/S 20 women’s collection, the brand has collaborated with a German chemical provider to pilot the first purely organic completely degradable bleaching agent for denim, which keeps the EIM-scale (from JEANOLOGIA) for the washes in the “low-impact” area (0-33 points from max. 100 points). The results are a fantastic, eye-catching array of bleach splashes and acid wash effects you’d expect from the 80s – minus the harsh environmental impact. On top of the eco-wash, Closed have also used a special fabric quality called “eco fluid lyocell denim”, a 100% Lyocell denim from SANTANDERINA (Spain). Speaking on the fabric Kippschnieder says “the fact that no fresh cotton is used for this fabric means we safe already around 2500 liters of water per garment compared to a 100% (fresh) cotton denim.”

While these type of technology investments are more expensive than conventional washes, Kippschnieder details that much of their ‘ A Better Blue’ initiative is like-for-like on price. The reduction in stages means less time, energy and resources used in the process. He gives an example of a their sustainable vintage wash including organic bleach and bio enzyme treatments, which uses just 13 stages as opposed to 21 in the conventional way. Like Boyish Jeans, Closed have also been working with faux stone as an alternative to traditional pumice. Kippschnieder explains that these artificial stones, which are the same size as natural stones but made from a clay, resist much longer (6-8 washes vs 2-3 of natural). And once they degrade become too small, you can send them to the supplier to be recycled into new faux stones.

Closed Denim ‘A Better Blue’ S/S 20

Kippschnieder is aware of the privilege Closed has with working with strategic partners in Italy, but believes that brands working in developing countries should be pushing their suppliers to adopt more responsible practices. Cost and a willingness to change are two of the defining factors that have hindered this move for manufacturers over the past few years. The initial brunt comes from the upfront investments of new technology and machinery, which can cost over to triple figures per machine. But as Mr Bahl proved at Saitex, with efficiency over time the investment pays off, especially on all the automation and reduced processes which reduces labor, water, and energy costs a lot. Secondly, there must be full investment from the business to ensure management and workers are fully trained on new technologies and committed to transitioning to greener processes. Without this operations will loose consistency and changes will fail.

But for brands, Jordan Nordarse says they have a choice to manufacture in a traditional way or a sustainable way. “The water and energy of traditional production is costly and so is pollution. Today, including the capital investment, you can produce the same product at the same price. Brands can do it.” Likewise Bolzoni believes that a lot of this lack of investment from brands is down to a lack of awareness and laziness in budget strategy planning; “it would not take a genius to arrange mark-up in a way to allow a bigger margin on items that require more budget to be green.” For designers that are committed and have the skills to implement change, Bolozoni encourages them to fight against those senior heads who don’t care, and buyers should be more supportive in imposing green initiatives and allowing extra budget to make them breath.

Pumice stones traditionally used in stone wash finishing are fast becoming replaced by alternative clay or porcelain versions which last longer and can be recycled

So if there is economic and ecological benefits for both parties, why is there such a slow move to more responsible washing? “Change is tough. Like I said before, its an initial investment up front that takes time to pay itself off. You gotta do the math and frankly, most people do not like math!” Nordarse empathised. He uses Los Angeles wash sector as an example, breaking down the implications of investment with consideration of the rapid rise of California’s minimum wage and the pressure of brands outsourcing production outside of the US.

Much of the resistance to change can also be attributed to lack of education and knowledge within industry. Organisations like the Copenhagen Fashion Summit and Ellen MacArthur Foundation are challenging companies to work towards more responsible and circular solutions for the fashion industry through educational events and rigorous guidelines. In July, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation published Jeans ReDesign, new guidelines that are to transform the way they produce jeans, tackling waste, pollution, and the use of harmful practices. One of the minimum requirements set out in the paper is that “Stone finishing, potassium permanganate, and sandblasting are prohibited.”

While events like the Copenhagen Fashion Summit and annual Global Fashion Agenda target CEO’s and senior decision makers, getting them to actually make internal change is a challenge. Nordarse believes that not enough company executives are prioritising social responsibility – “I know a lot of designers that want to make sustainable garments, however, the company executives and owners do not care enough.” This is where Greenwashing comes into play.

Tonello ‘No Stone’ machine created in collaboration with Levi’s in 2015

In jeanswear, Nordarse see’s this occur when brands market product as sustainable with one small attribute like an “ozone wash or having using organic cotton (thats not even certified)”. Nordarse explains “thats maybe 5% of what sustainable processes should be done and then they pat themselves on the back. Companies are scared to lose market share but also not intelligent enough to figure out what specific changes are needed to advance into the future of making garments correctly in a sustainable and eco-conscious method.”

So what can brands do to better position themselves for the future? Kippschnieder believes it’s important that brands get into the topic and better educate themselves. “Brands need to understand and know what the chemical companies and laundries do. Only if you understand what they do you can push them.” He emphasises the importance of this for brands working with factories in developing countries. “You should push them to be more responsible as there will be no other way in the next 20 years. Consumers are looking for change.”