As ‘new consumerism’ sees shoppers’ demand shift increasingly towards sustainability and ethically produced fashion, jeans, one of the worst offenders in terms of human and environmental production costs, will present some of the best opportunities to make a sound business out of ethically produced apparel. The peculiarities of the UK’s relationship with jeans will make it easier for brands to convince shoppers to trade up to higher quality and higher prices, mitigating the costs of ensuring more ethical production.
While jeans have been cemented as a staple garment for fashion and function, mounting evidence has spoken to the huge impact on people and the environment of supplying the UK’s appetite for cheap denim bottoms. Their mass production, which often requires highly toxic chemicals in order to produce pre-faded on-trend garments, has come under particular scrutiny from regulators and organisations such as the Clean Clothes Campaign.
As a result, apparel brands, retailers and manufacturers have rushed to quantify the commercial potential of ethical and sustainable apparel. The greatest challenge has been to meet growing demand for ethical fashion while dealing with the increased material and labour costs of monitoring supply chains and ensuring ethical production.
Value Placed on Quality and Fit Makes Jeans a Stand Out
The characteristics of the UK’s relationship with jeans make this one of the best products to absorb increased production costs. Studies on ethical spending have shown that consumers are willing to spend more on products that provide improved quality along with the ethical guarantee. Because jeans are so ubiquitous and versatile, UK consumers place a higher value on product quality than they do in other apparel categories. While ‘fast fashion’ has reduced consumers’ desire for hard-wearing bottoms, many have still been willing to accept higher prices and remain loyal to brands that guarantee them comfortable materials and a flattering fit.
Compare this to the tops category, where trends change more rapidly and consumers spend less time wearing any single garment. This makes fit, comfort and durability less pressing and premium pricing more closely linked to branding. As a result, it’s more difficult to convince consumers that spending more will bring an added benefit. This happens to be where volume-driven, fast-fashion brands have led and consumers are decidedly disloyal.
As the UK becomes more mindful of its consumption, sustainably produced jeans present an opportunity for players to target a high-profile ethical issue, while supporting revenue with a product that can drive higher value sales. In many cases, the costs of ensuring ethical production will overlap with the costs of improving quality. For example, near-sourcing production may allow closer monitoring of suppliers labour practices in addition to more control over quality assurance.
Jeans to Lead in Fast Fashion Fatigue
Getting consumers to accept higher prices for a product that a decade of ‘fast fashion’ has taught them to buy cheap and replace often will be a challenge. However, led by urbanised millennials, UK consumers are gradually buying into the ‘circular economy ‘and seeking to gain maximum value from less consumption.
As evidence of this, Euromonitor International’s apparel and footwear data shows that after consecutive years of decline, unit price growth has begun to stabilise across most jeans price segments. Notably, premium and super premium jeans have only just seen a marginal decline in price growth after maintaining markedly above-average historical growth.
UK Jeans : Price Growth by Segment 2011-2016
Brands such as Hiut Denim in the UK and Tuff’s in France have been gaining strength as a result. These players source all production internally and locally, keeping their supply chains short and guaranteeing the standards of production. Both brands have developed a fiercely loyal following of buyers who value the ethics and sustainability of their production as well as their high quality. Both brands pitch their jeans as a high value investment, justifying higher retail prices to account for the increased cost of nearer sourced production.
While it is always going to be a struggle to talk the average shopper into ‘breaking-in’ a stiff, heavy 19oz pair of raw selvedge jeans (waiting the better part of a year before washing them to get an authentic fade), high-quality denim can clearly sell big. The success of selvedge lines by Topshop and Uniqlo and H&M’s ‘conscious’ jeans has demonstrated that shoppers can be convinced to trade up on ethics and quality, fueling value-led growth.
Getting Ahead of the Curve
Sustainable jeans have thus far been limited to niche premium brands and high-profile, but small-scale, ‘green-washing’ efforts of major fast-fashion players. Those that prioritize ethics early will appear more authentic than those which seem to conform as a begrudging necessity; gaining favour with the increasingly influential millennial consumer. The challenge will be for winning brands and manufacturers to take bolder steps to make higher value ethical and sustainable jeans a more prominent feature in their product mix, before growing regulatory pressure and consumer outrage takes the initiative away from them.
*This story first appeared on Euro Monitor
As leading fashion brands continue their creative battles against textile waste — check out recent innovations by Levi Strauss, H&M and adidas — a new breed of circular clothing disruptor is starting to emerge. These purposeful startups are looking to stop fast fashion in its tracks by building longevity and emotional durability into their apparel.
UK designer Tom Cridland is creating waves, not least among celebrities, with his self-branded 30 Year Sweatshirt. Guaranteeing not just sweatshirts, but t-shirts and jackets, for three decades is an unusual approach in an industry that prides itself on rapid response to ever-changing styles and trends.
Cridland says the answer to this is to design apparel with a classic and timeless feel.
“A white t-shirt, after all, will always be a white t-shirt,” he said in a recent interview. “I just want to invoke a bygone era when clothing was more often made with exquisite care and offer it at a reasonable price point.”
The philosophy behind the Tom Cridland brand is reminiscent of Patagonia’s ethos of buy less, but buy better. And Cridland feels he can influence those consumer groups who buy most into fast fashion.
“It’s interesting that we’re offering a 30-year guarantee so people get drawn in to find out more,” he asserts. “When they read more, they will engage with sustainability issues and hopefully be influenced to change their shopping habits.”
Building in the level of functionality required to ensure that each item lasts has taken the company to Portugal and Italy, where it is working with various seamstresses to handcraft luxury clothing. The fabrics themselves are sourced from Biella in Northern Italy.
“Technological advances allowed us to develop a special treatment to protect the garments against shrinking. Should anything happen to your garment in the next 30 years, we will repair or replace it free of charge,” Cridland says.
Since the brand launched in 2014 it has sold more than 7,000 sweatshirts, worn by customers across six continents. The brand is rapidly gaining a celebrity following — the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Hugh Grant, Stephen Fry,Daniel Craig, Rod Stewart and Robbie Williams have all worn Tom Cridland garments. “We’ve taken our modest £6,000 start-up loan and turned it into a business with roughly £600,000 in annual revenue,” Cridland says.
The brand has now come Stateside, expanding to LA last month. Plans are now in the pipeline to launch items that might carry more of an ‘on-trend’ look, but Cridland doesn’t feel this will comprise longevity in any way.
“If it’s well-made, it can actually be recycled, unlike the clothing being made by many fast fashion retailers. People can see this is a labor of love for us and they want to try out different designs or colors. That’s the main point – there’s no planned obsolescence in everyday, non-catwalk clothing.”
Other fresh-faced fashion brands such as Mud Jeans and Hiut Denim are making jeans to last through offering similar circular solutions such as leasing models and free repairs for life. Both companies look to promote the concept of emotional durability — Hiut, for example, encourages customers to join the “No Wash Club” and not wash their jeans for at least six months; and every pair of Hiut jeans comes with its own unique History Tag, encouraging wearers to engage in storytelling through social media.
“If we’re going to build a pair of jeans to last, make sure the stories go with them, too,” says Hiut Denim co-founder David Hieatt.
It’s a view echoed by Mud Jeans CEO Bert van Son: “People like the fact that jeans have character … and they like personal stories. They want to hear from like-minded people what they have been doing, what places they visited.
“We call our customers the ‘conscious explorers,’” he continues. “They are a group of people that are willing to try out new things. They want to discover the world and do good for the world. They realize that are recourses aren’t infinite.”
Mud Jeans recently embarked on a Recycle Tour across Spain, to promote the concept of circular fashion to a wider audience. The occasion also marked the company’s first delivery of 3,000 returned leased jeans to a Spanish reprocessor to be recycled back into raw denim for new jeans.
According to van Son, around 1,888 people are currently leasing Mud Jeans — of those, 80 percent choose to switch the jeans, 10 percent keep them and 10 percent send them back. “This means we’re building long-term relationships with customers,” he says.
“It means that as a brand you create ongoing relations with your customers — the relationship doesn’t stop when the purchase is made. The customer benefits as they only pay for the service they require and receive a better service, since we have a greater interest in providing a product that lasts.”
*This story first appeared on Sustainable Brands