What The Denim Industry Needs To Support A Sustainable Supply Chain
Denim is one of the most popular types of clothing around the world — the go-to garment for a variety of work and social situations. Practically everyone has a favorite pair they pull on when all else fails.
Unfortunately, the mass appeal of denim has turned into a problem for our environment and for the people who produce it.
Look what happened to one river delta in China, dyed blue from nearby denim factories. Or consider the practice of sandblasting jeans to get that trendy faded look — an act that’s extremely hazardous to workers health and well-being.
It’s clear denim is one of the dirtiest garments in the clothing industry.
And while conversations focused on change are happening (like this Study Hall collaboration between MIT, sustainability associations and businesses) the industry is far from a final solution.
Right now, many are trying to find some sort of consensus on what it means to be sustainable. Individual companies are spending on safety and sustainability certifications, like the Higg Index, Cradle to Cradle, or ISO 9000. The problem is, they pay millions to get a snapshot of the processes used to make a product, but there’s still no high-level awareness or data collection on the industry as a whole.
Denim isn’t going anywhere soon.
That’s why the industry needs to find ways to help clean up the process and build a more sustainable supply chain.
Here’s how it can happen:
The denim industry needs to get rid of its many individual standards.
Right now, every company and manufacturer has different standards.
Levi’s has separate requirements for a denim product than J.Crew, BLK DNM or Gap. And it’s really up to the mills creating these jeans to meet each requirement.
So in order for a mill to differentiate themselves from competitors, they get every sustainability and manufacturing certification possible — and it’s incredibly inefficient. On one hand, it’s laudable that many of these companies are spending the time and money to get their production practices certified as sustainable. Yet no one has a clear understanding about which certifications matter to consumers or how they all stack up against each other.
The industry can start by examining every standard and finding areas where they overlap.
Those commonalities are where the real value lies, and they’re what the industry can use to build an overarching, yet flexible, standard. In turn, that may lead to dropping the costly third-party audits and standards altogether.
A single standard is the first step in getting to network-wide, industry-wide interoperability. Once that happens, the industry then needs a system that allows it to track how well people are following the standard.
A blockchain-based system stands to benefit everyone in the denim industry, from suppliers to consumers.
The real value will come from bringing the denim industry together to create an ecosystem focused on sustainability.
Once an ecosystem is established, it opens up the doors to using a blockchain payment system that incentivizes good behavior. As each participant in the supply chain achieves goals, like meeting the new standard, they can automatically receive discounts or rewards that incentivize them to continue working in a sustainable, ethical manner.
A blockchain payment system allows for streamlining transactions and automating the incentive system through smart contracts.
Companies can prove their products are sustainable or more environmentally-friendly by putting their manufacturing records on the blockchain, and that will illuminate who is and isn’t living up to the standards.
The final step is a move towards localized, on-demand production.
This is what’s known as a demand chain, and it’s going to be a total reinvention of how denim and other garments are produced in the first place.
In this system, companies will no longer have to rely on centralized manufacturing. Rather, they’ll send design files to autonomous machines at different locations, where customers will wait while the clothing is quickly made on-site.
Imagine a customer walks into a denim depot, picks a certain brand, style and size, and then briefly waits as the clothing is made in real time. It may seem far-fetched, but in reality, it’s much more efficient than manufacturing a set number of garments in a central location and then shipping them all over the world.
When production is done on-demand and on-site, companies will be spending less of their time and money chasing down audits and looking for the latest certification.
Over time, the blockchain ecosystem will provide increased efficiency and more beneficial data as they track their processes and practices, leading to a more sustainable future for denim.