NOW OR NEVER Sustainability is a lifeline for denim brands as they begin to recover from the pandemic. w ords_____ JA S M I N M A LI K CH UA
he Covid-19 pandemic has thrown fashion retailers in a state of frenzy, and the denim industry is no different. Shoppers aren’t as eager to crack open their wallets for non-essentials, let alone splurge on bottoms that aren’t visible on Zoom calls. The coronavirus doesn’t appear to be going anywhere soon, either. With resurgent cases in countries like Germany, Spain and South Korea, where rates of infection were previously on the decline, a second wave that ushers another spate of lockdowns and store closures seems all but inevitable. Denim companies must then make a decision, experts say: to see sustainability as either an albatross or a lifeline. While brands in survival mode might be tempted to jettison their sustainable investments, especially if they’re part of a stand-alone strategy that doesn’t have repercussions for other parts of their business, doing so would be a fatal mistake, according to Laura Balmond, program manager of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular Jeans Redesign initiative, which aims to make denim production less wasteful and polluting.
“The pandemic has shown the fragility of today’s fashion industry and the risks it faces in the long term if it does not change,” she said. “The only way to ensure businesses can be resilient enough to tackle this type of situation without sacrificing their other priorities—like addressing climate change, waste and pollution—is to...put them at the core of their brand.” In short, Covid-19 is only one tremor that has rattled supply chains. Bigger, more existential threats still loom on the horizon. Brands that incorporate sustainability as part of their rehabilitation, positioning the prolonged global pause as an opportunity rather than a catastrophe, however, may be better positioned for future upheavals such as those caused by a warming, increasingly overcrowded planet. “As we emerge from this crisis, we have a choice: to rebuild the fashion industry as it was before—wasteful, polluting and fragile—or to redesign it, and to create an industry that helps us to thrive in the long term,” Balmond said. For denim purveyors, whose own copious use of cotton, water and potentially toxic dyes and chemicals is an open secret, the contagion has accelerated a social and environmental reckoning RIVET NO.10 / OCTOBER 2020
long in the making. Covid has underscored both the glaring economic inequities that are endemic to the apparel supply chain and the benefits of a world where humans aren’t polluting all the time. “Denim is one of the most universal, loved and enduring subsets of the fashion industry, but it’s also one of the dirtiest,” said James Bartle, CEO of Outland Denim, which sources organic cotton and employs women who have experienced sexual exploitation. “The pandemic has forced every industry to adapt and find new ways of moving forward, and it's my hope that denim brands can work together to lead the way for fashion into a more sustainable future.” The crisis has created an opening for more innovative business models. Outland Denim, which suffered a hit when brick-and-mortar partners like Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s shuttered during mandatory lockdowns, is now moving from two seasonal collections a year to six smaller capsule lines that will generate less risk associated with long-lead forecasting, less deadstock and more newness to consumers with a “considered, sustainable approach.” It’s also bringing its purpose-led mission to other quarters, crowdfunding nearly $1 million in investments for a new venture