If You Care About Ethical Fashion, It's Time to Stop Sleeping on G-Star Raw

With the launch of its "most sustainable jeans ever," the brand is taking serious leadership when it comes to environmental and social responsibility.
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G-Star Raw's "most sustainable jeans ever." Photo: G-Star Raw

G-Star Raw's "most sustainable jeans ever." Photo: G-Star Raw

If you ask the average fashion fan to list some environmentally responsible brands, you'll likely hear names like Patagonia, Eileen Fisher and Reformation. G-Star Raw, however, is rarely brought up in such conversations, and that's a woeful blind spot. The Amsterdam-based denim brand, which is partially owned by Pharrell, has been making serious strides with regards to environmental and social responsibility for over a decade — and with the launch of its "most sustainable jeans ever," G-Star is proving that it deserves to be regarded as a leader in the space.

G-Star Raw is relatively young for a denim brand, having launched in 1989, a hundred years or more after Levi's and Wrangler. But one unique benefit of being bereft of a century-long legacy is that G-Star has always been more focused on the future than the past. The resulting emphasis on innovation has helped the brand push denim design to new places, both in terms of aesthetics and ethics.

G-Star's "most sustainable jeans ever," launching Feb. 15, are the latest example of the latter. While they're by no means G-Star's first foray into sustainable denim, this particular iteration comes at a zeitgeisty time, with ethical fashion favorites Everlane and Reformation both launching denim this the past year.

Made using organic cotton, a cleaner-than-ever indigo dying technique, "eco-finished" buttons that avoid the harsh chemistry of typical electroplating and a wash process that recycles 98 percent of the water involved (the other 2 percent simply evaporates), G-Star's new collection is raising the bar when it comes to denim done right. To prove it, G-Star underwent an exacting certification process with the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute and earned a gold rating for its fabric — the highest ranking any denim has ever received from the third-party sustainability certifier.

"We went through a long process where every molecule involved in the making of this fabric was dissected and evaluated," said Adriana Galijasevic, who works on denim development at G-Star, on a tour at the brand's Amsterdam headquarters last month. "Cradle to Cradle certification is the most rigorous in the world. It looks at material health, social responsibility, water stewardship, use of renewable energy and the 'cyclability' [or re-usability] of the product."

Adriana Galijasevic leads a tour describing G-Star's history of sustainability at the brand's Amsterdam headquarters. Photo: G-Star Raw

Adriana Galijasevic leads a tour describing G-Star's history of sustainability at the brand's Amsterdam headquarters. Photo: G-Star Raw

The Cradle to Cradle Institute is a nonprofit that has become one of the most significant players in the conversation about the circular economy, an idea that is predicated on the practice of reducing or eliminating waste by creating products that can be re-used in their entirety in some other format after their initial use ends. (One example of this would be using pineapple fibers that are a by-product of the food industry to make handbags). As growing consumption rates fueled by fast fashion result in more and more garments ending up in landfills every year, many are looking to the circular economy as the only viable option for fashion to correct its current disastrous course.

To that end, G-Star's new line of denim isn't just made from the most environmentally responsible materials possible in the most human-and-earth-friendly factories possible using the least toxic processes possible. It's also made with the post-consumer life of each garment taken into consideration, which means that the designers are thinking from the get-go how to make each garment as recyclable as possible. When G-Star's designers realized that denim recyclers often discard the top of a pair of pants because separating out the metal buttons, rivets and zippers is too complicated, the designers decided to eliminate rivets and zippers entirely in the interest of making a larger percentage of each garment recyclable.

But perhaps the most impressive thing about the whole endeavor is that G-Star is literally giving away its sustainability trade secrets for free. Achieving the gold ranking for its denim was an almost two-year process that involved formulating an entirely new procedure for indigo dyeing that cut the use of chemicals that can be hard to remove from water systems post-use. In short, G-Star put significant resources toward making its sustainability goals possible. And instead of guarding the results to maintain a competitive edge — which would have been completely understandable and is more of the industry norm — G-Star submitted its work to Cradle to Cradle, which automatically makes everything it certifies open source.

"G-Star is significantly amplifying the potential positive impact of the product by making it accessible to other designers and manufacturers via the​ Fashion Positive Materials Collection," a Cradle to Cradle representative told Fashionista via email. "This means other designers and manufacturers can make use of the denim in their own products, knowing it meets rigorous standards for material health and sustainability."

More of G-Star's "most sustainable jeans ever." Photo: G-Star Raw

More of G-Star's "most sustainable jeans ever." Photo: G-Star Raw

When it comes to G-Star's position in the ethical fashion sphere, it's worth noting that this latest collection didn't come out of a vacuum. The "most sustainable jeans" line builds on the foundation of conscious production that the company has been investing in since 2006, when its corporate social responsibility department was first established. 

Since then, it has partnered with the United Nations and countless non-profits like Greenpeace, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, Canopy, Made-By, Plastic Soup and others to address a range of environmental and social issues inherent in fashion manufacturing. Its own foundation, GSRD, provides educational programming for the communities that produce its garments, and its long-term partner factories like Saitex and Artistic Milliners are recognized as some of the industry's cleanest and best (and are sought out by other ethical fashion household names like Everlane). 

"It took us a long time to integrate sustainable materials in a very good process and now finally we got it," Frouke Bruinsma, G-Star's corporate responsibility director, told Fashionista at the company's headquarters. "And now we're also confident that we're going to be using 100-percent sustainable cotton across all our lines by 2020... Sustainability is always a path of continuous improvement."

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The brand has been pursuing that path in a variety of ways for years. The website features a "where is it made?" button by each product that details its production history and factory details. Past sustainability-focused capsules have included the Raw for the Oceans collection, which used recycled ocean plastic to make denim; the Earth Colors collection, which used natural dyes procured from food and medical industry by-products; and the Renewed Denim collection, which turned recycled G-Star jeans into threads that were incorporated into new fabric. And these are just a few examples. Like Bruinsma said, there's always room for improvement, but the robust pursuit of that improvement is part of what makes G-Star compelling from an ethics perspective. 

"We see sustainability not only as an absolute must as a business practice, but also as an opportunity to think about denim design in a new way," G-Star marketing strategy director Sean Peron said at the brand's headquarters. "It's about seeing how sustainability can be an enabler of new design, and not viewing it as a boundary or a barrier."

With an attitude like that, G-Star Raw's clout as an ethical fashion powerhouse can only keep growing.

Disclosure: G-Star Raw provided my travel and accommodations to attend a tour of the brand's headquarters in Amsterdam.

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