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Can These Jeans Fix Denim's Excessive Water Use Problem?

The denim industry is among the worst culprits for water usage. Wrangler wants to change that.
Pieces from Wrangler's Indigood collection. Photo: Courtesy of Wrangler 

Pieces from Wrangler's Indigood collection. Photo: Courtesy of Wrangler 

Blue jeans are such a cultural icon in America that it seems almost taboo to admit the truth: Manufacturing them is generally pretty terrible for the environment.

For one thing, the denim industry is among the worst culprits for water usage, with each pair of jeans requiring more than 2,000 gallons to complete, including water used to grow the cotton, dye the yarn and finish the garment.

With new technology, though, Wrangler hopes to revolutionize at least one phase in this process, eliminating 100% of the water used to make blue jeans, well, blue. The foam-dyeing technique — which the brand revealed last month at the fabric mill Tejidos Royo outside of Valencia, Spain — applies indigo to yarn using foam roughly the texture of shaving cream, rather than dunking it in vast vats of water-diluted dye.

The process is the basis of the brand's new sustainable dye initiative, Indigood, and of a nine-piece foam-dyed Icons collection inspired by classic styles from the Wrangler archives, which launches June 4.

Traditionally, denim's warp yarns (those that run vertically through the fabric) are dipped in indigo-water vats multiple times to achieve the desired hue, and the water is treated continuously with chemicals to prevent oxidation. Foam-dyeing, however, uses a nitrogen hood to keep oxygen away from the indigo as it penetrates the yarn, decreasing the amount of chemicals needed by 90% and reducing energy and waste by 60% apiece.

It also takes up a lot less space: at the Royo mill, the 95 meters of rollers and dye baths that are involved in the traditional "slasher" range are scaled down to just 8 meters for foam-dyeing.

The foam-dyeing process. Photo: Courtesy of Wrangler 

The foam-dyeing process. Photo: Courtesy of Wrangler 

"It's like a football field of dye vats reduced to just the end field," says Steve Zades, VP of global innovation at Kontoor Brands Inc., Wrangler's parent company, which spun off from VF Corporation last month.

The brand — which also recently unveiled a buzzy collaboration with Lil' Nas X of "Old Town Road" fame — provided early-stage funding to Texas Tech University to develop the technology, and the school's researchers worked with North Carolina-based Gaston Systems to manufacture the equipment for commercial use.

While Wrangler will be the first brand to launch a collection using the process, it says it has no plans to be the last. "As different mills see the promise, see the power and potential of this technology, they too can procure it. We want them to procure it," says Roian Atwood, Kontoor's senior director of sustainable business.

Wrangler Creative Director Sean Gormley says there has already been significant interest in foam-dyeing among the fabric mills he meets with at industry trade shows like Kingpins and Première Vision. "That is a moment when you feel how important this innovation is and I know they're queuing up." Organizers from Kingpins this year compiled a list of the top 10 most sustainable products presented at the show for the first time ever, and Royo's "dry indigo" technology made the cut.

Throughout the industry, brands are paying more attention to sustainability — in part because consumers are, too.

A report published last month by Global Fashion Agenda and Sustainable Apparel Coalition in partnership with Boston Consulting Group found that 75% of shoppers said they consider sustainability to be either extremely or very important to them.

Still, the same study made it clear that fashion has a long way to go toward cleaning up its act environmentally, and companies' efforts in areas like reducing carbon emissions and water use, developing sustainable materials and eliminating packaging waste aren't keeping up with the industry's growth.

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Denim getting recycled. Photo: Courtesy of Wrangler

Denim getting recycled. Photo: Courtesy of Wrangler

Consumers that want to shop more sustainability have options: Reformation uses recycled materials, deadstock fabrics and sustainably sourced fibers for its denim line; Warp + Weft operates an in-house water treatment plant to recycle and treat 98% of the water it uses; and Everlane manufactures its jeans with Saitex, an LEED-certified facility that uses renewable energy sources to reduce CO2 emissions by nearly 80%.

Wrangler's new Icons collection stacks foam-dyeing with other sustainability initiatives as well, including using yarn sourced from nearby Spanish mill Hilaturas Ferre containing 28% recycled cotton fibers — the highest percentage they could include while still maintaining the durability the brand is is known for, says Gormley.

"Some people might try to push the threshold but that stuff also is fast fashion that falls apart," says Atwood. "I can't wait to put [these jeans] on 30 years from now. Because that's going to be my, 'Oh yeah, remember the day when…' moment."

The collection also avoids traditional finishing techniques like bleaching and stonewashing, which can be water-, chemical- and energy-intensive, instead opting to use technology like lasers, ozone and nanobubbles to create effects like fading and distressing.

Still, any brand that wants to be more sustainable today faces several major hurdles: for one thing, most research suggests that shoppers still value attributes like price and brand name over sustainability. Even millennial and Gen Z consumers, who tend to think of themselves as champions of sustainability, may not be putting their money where their mouths are.

A 2018 study from LIM College found that "only 34% of those millennials surveyed reported that they are driven to make a fashion purchase because the apparel or accessory was eco-friendly and sustainably produced." This paled in comparison to price (95%), ease of purchase (95%) and product uniqueness (92%).

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In the BCG study, researchers surveyed 90 senior managers responsible for sustainability issues, and 26% cited consumers' unwillingness to pay a premium for sustainable products as a top barrier to progress in this area.

This is particularly important for Wrangler's more budget-conscious customers. The brand sells denim across a range of price points, starting at less than $20 for a pair of jeans at Walmart and going up to $139 for a pair from its fashion-driven Heritage collection. The Icons collection is situated at the upper end of this range, but Atwood says he hopes to carry the same processes over into the brand's more affordable offerings — if not all at once, than at least in part at first.

"No consumer should ever have to choose between their basic needs and a sustainability attribute. We want to see this be available in all channels and all products," he says. "The more widespread adoption we get, the cheaper it becomes on scale. And the more that we can adopt it broadly."

By the same tack, the collection's sizing is also relatively limited — for women, it offers sizes 24 to 32 in jeans and XS to L in shirts and jackets; for men, sizes 29 to 40 in jeans and S to XXL in shirts and jackets — something the brand says it hopes to ultimately expand.

The onus, he says, is on brands, mills and other companies throughout the supply chain to offer products that the customer wants to own, whether or not that customer's first priority is sustainability.

"People need to embrace it, because we owe it to our industry," says Atwood. "We owe it to the environment. We owe it to our consumer. And this has a chance to radically transform the impacts that we have in the manufacturing community globally."

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Disclosure: Wrangler provided travel and accommodations for this story.