Denim production is a “dirty business,” says Michael Preysman, Chief Executive Officer of fashion e-tailer Everlane Inc. He’s not wrong. Chances are, those jeans you’re wearing produced 44 pounds of carbon dioxide and took up to 10,000 liters (2,700 gallons) of water to make, much of it ending up in waterways, along with toxic dyes and chemicals deployed in making denim. The desire to do better is why, last month, Everlane embarked on its biggest endeavor to date: an eco-conscious jean. It’s the next step in the brand’s journey of radical transparency.
Everlane’s $68 price tag sits well in the quality green jean market. L.A. brand Reformation’s range of sustainable jeans costs from $118 to $168, Patagonia Inc.’s jeans retail from $99 to $119, Seattle-based Source Denim LLC’s Ethical Raw Jeans for men cost $139, while Swedish brand ReDew, whose jeans will soon be available online, has just debuted jeans in a limited number of U.S. cities, ranging in price from $150 to $195.
As with its bag factories in China, Everlane works hard to find the right factories at the right price, allowing for the disclosures that are going down so well with customers. For those $68 jeans, the “true cost,” according to the brand, is $28, including $7.50 for labour and $12.78 for materials. Everlane’s markup runs from double to triple, compared to an industry standard that ranges from five to six times costs.
If Preysman were to start it all again, denim would be Everlane’s second product, after t-shirts, but he says it took him two years to find a manufacturing facility with the right eco credentials. Typically, he says, “factories take advantage of inadequate regulations and dump contaminated water directly into the environment,” with denim manufacturers being particularly egregious offenders. A damning Greenpeace report in 2010 detailed how Xintang, known as the “Jeans Capital of the World,” was polluting surrounding waterways in China’s Guandong Province. “The smell is putrid and unbearable, and any skin contact results in itching and even festering,” said the report (PDF), with accompanying satellite images of dark, disturbing indigo runoff in the Pearl River. “Though villagers once fished and drank water from the river, now they dare do neither of these things and must pay for tap water.”
Preysman’s search eventually led to Saitex International Dong Nai Co. Ltd., a modern manufacturer surrounded by rainwater-filled pools and spouting fountains in Bien Hoa, southern Vietnam. “They set incredibly high standards by recycling 98 percent of their water to a drinkable state, air-drying the denim, and turning the excess denim waste into bricks made for affordable housing,” he says.
Saitex’s President, Saanjeev Bahl, who also sits on the board of directors for the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, has been a vocal force for change. Unhappy with the apparel industry’s practices—it’s second only to oil as the planet’s worst industrial polluter—Bahl built a LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) operation considered one of the world’s most sustainable denim-manufacturing facilities, thanks to incredible efficiencies. A closed water system and jet washing machines lose only .4 liters of water per pair of jeans through evaporation; typical commercial machines waste as much as 1,500 liters per pair. Rainwater harvesting further minimises water usage, while a five-step filtration process separates water from contaminants. (Preysman and Bahl made a video of themselves drinking the filtered waste water to prove it.)
After they are cut, sewed, and washed, Saitex jeans are mostly air-dried before being finished in commercial driers. Renewable energy, including solar power and miniature windmills, reduces power usage by 5.3 million kilowatt-hours of power annually and and cut carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 80 percent. Any remaining industrial sludge is mixed with concrete (to prevent seepage), shaped into bricks, and earmarked for the local community. To date, 10 brick homes have been built.
There is definitely a move within the industry standard. As well as Everlane’s model, larger companies are also looking to change. Levi Strauss & Co. intends to make 80 percent of all its products via waterless innovations by 2020. China’s Crystal Group Ltd., another sector leader, has been recognised with awards from WWF-Hong Kong, a conservation organisation, for attaining continuous improvement in environmental performance and carbon reduction.
Everlane jeans are built to last, too. By using Japanese denim, a high-quality (and, it’s worth noting, on-trend) weave with little stretch, it won’t “bag out” says Preysman, and should thus contribute less to the rise in textile waste reported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—a massive 15.13 million tons in 2013. “What we’re seeing now is a move back to a more authentic, original fabric that Japanese denim provides. We believe it gets better with wear,” Preysman says.
Customers who want to try on the company’s latest collections before they buy online can visit a showroom in Manhattan’s SoHo and at the Everlane Lab in San Francisco’s Mission District. For women, that includes the new high-rise skinny, mid-rise skinny, and boyfriend-fit jeans in white, black, and blue washes. Men will find slim and straight fits in indigo, mid-blue, and black washes. A pop-up shop will run through Nov. 12 at select Nordstrom Inc. locations, bringing the brand’s luxury basics to eight additional cities across North America.
Julie Gilhart, an 18-year veteran at Barneys New York Inc. an industry consultant, calls Everlane’s denim initiative “brilliant” and foresees its approach to transparency becoming the norm, rather than an exception. “The combo of transparency in manufacturing, pricing, and sustainability is the magic recipe for future growth and a big disruptor for the fast-fashion business,” she says.