Blue Jeans Go ‘Green’: Is Ethical Production a Good Fit for the Denim Industry?

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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.

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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 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

Don’t Neglect Your Clothes or They Might Give Themselves Away

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Pile of clothes

Academics at Birmingham City University are working on a connected wardrobe that addresses the problem of unworn clothes by reminding you to wear them – or to give them away to charity.

The initiative will create an Internet of Clothes that sees garments tagged using washable contactless technology, known as radio-frequency identification (RFID). Every day clothing will tweet and message users asking to be worn depending on the weather and frequency of wear. If these notifications are ignored, the garments will get in touch with a clothing charity and ask to be recycled, with an organisation automatically sending out a mailing envelope for return.

The project aims to challenge people’s relationship with fashion and clothing usage – as a society, we own four times as many clothes as we did 20 years ago, but regularly only wear about 20 per cent of them.

Mark Brill, Senior Lecturer in Future Media at Birmingham City University, is behind the project.

He explained:

“The connected wardrobe is a practical, engaging concept to encourage people to think about their clothing consumption. Ultimately, I hope it will encourage more ethical fashion consumption.”

The average American buys 64 items of clothing a year and UK shoppers buy 2.15 million tonnes of clothing and shoes annually, yet UK citizens have an estimated £30 billion worth of unused clothing sitting in their closets. A century ago, people on average spent more than half their money on food and clothes, today this is less than a fifth.

Overconsumption of clothing is a problem for both the environment and exploitation of those who produce them. Clothing production is highly damaging to the environment, from the petrochemicals used in synthetics to cotton growing, which uses more pesticides than any other crop. Bleaching, dyeing and finishing adds further pollutants to the environment and use considerable energy resources.

Figures show that clothing manufacturing is among the most exploitative industries in the world, with workers some of the lowest paid and 85 per cent of them are women. The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh, killing over 1,100 people in 2013 highlighted these often appalling work conditions.

Internet of clothes prototypeThe project has been shortlisted among 12 other projects for a Network for Innovations in Culture and Creativity in Europe (N.I.C.E) Award, which is organised by the european centre for creative economy (ecce). €20,000 will be distributed among four winners of the N.I.C.E. Award, which will be announced in Essen, Germany on Thursday 25 August.

If successful, Birmingham City University academics hope to use the prize money to develop their working prototype into a network of many open source wardrobes – or an Internet of Clothes. Garments will compare and share their usage to others in the network with their own story about where, when and who wore them, as well as being able to offer individual items up to someone else.

Future innovations for the technology could also see the creations of a ‘style matcher’, which will encourage greater usage of clothing by making wardrobe combinations easier to find.

Furthermore, the academics involved would like to see garments tagged at the point of retail, meaning clothing labels could also let buyers know details such as the exact origin of the item, who made it and how much the worker was paid for it.

Mark Brill added:

“As well as ensuring unused clothes go to charity, the Internet of Clothes could also automate the options for selling our own clothes, meaning unloved items are automatically posted to eBay, ASOS Marketplace or Depop, for example.

“Think of the surprise when an owner suddenly receives bids for items they didn’t know were in their wardrobe!”

The project has been made possible by Maker Monday, an open innovation project from Birmingham City University that brings artists and technologists together to create new concepts. Mark Brill will be leading a team from Maker Monday to deliver the Internet of Clothes.

*This story first appeared on Birmingham City University