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The (My) Truth About Mass Market Denim, the Environment, and Non-Selvedge Jeans

When deciding what to write about for the Heddels universe, some topics are a no-brainer (new releases from our favorite makers, reviews of new takes on old favorites, etc.) and others that are, well…less a slam dunk. Spoiler Alert:  this is one of the latter. Yes we’ve written about Big Denim (usually not all that favorably), yes we care deeply about fashion’s environmental impact, and yes we occasionally write about non-selvedge jeans, but this is new territory—covering all three kinda’ sorta’ at the same time.

A little background—I started out wanting to know more about the sustainability efforts and natural resource management of mass market denim, and was prepared for the worst (indifference-bordering-on-callousness). Surprisingly, I found myself in conversation with designers and manufacturers who were independently making huge efforts to minimize their impact…like Deadliest Catch-types who understand that overfishing isn’t in their industry’s best interests.

I ended up trying out some pre-faded, pre-finished, downright stretchy jeans I never would have given a second thought, liking some and downright loving others. Forgive me Heddels reader for I have sinned, and I’d do it again. Here’s why…

The environmental impact of smaller, “artisan” brands that are making hundreds of pairs of jeans as opposed of thousands or hundreds of thousands of pairs, is rarely if ever discussed, the assumption being that smaller is better and less harmful. But…is it? Always? Much like we’ve talked about Cost Per Wear…how expensive jeans worn all the time end up being cheaper-per-wear than a less expensive item worn only occasionally…I believe the same thinking can be applied to jeans manufacturing.

At scale, there’s likely a smaller per-pair environmental impact than with a boutique operation. Granted, most of the selvedge brands we talk about don’t do any pre-fade treatments, etc., so that makes a difference. But still, it’s interesting to think about…bigger isn’t always necessarily badder.

In researching this piece, I randomly reached out to a couple of brands and both agreed to share their process details with me. I didn’t edit or cherry-pick the results—I asked each the same questions and was surprised not just by the answers, but more by how wonderfully similar they were. I think it’s encouraging, but you decide for yourself. First up is Oliver Timsit, founder of the Oliver Logan apparel brand.

(Heddels):  Tell me a little about the history of the brand…how long you’ve been making jeans, and what you feel differentiates you from the pack.

(Oliver Timsit):  I have been making jeans for over 10 years. I started off in this industry working in the warehouse, then moved into a customer service role, then a sales role, and then a product development role. Eventually I started to manage production, supply chain, and logistics for a global denim brand.

I spent quite a bit of time overseas—China mainly—working in the factories and laundries. After about 6 years with that company, I left because they were bought by one of the big conglomerates, and I found myself in NYC doing the same thing for a very high-end contemporary line. What was great about that experience is I was now not only making denim, but also cut/sew knits, sweater knits, leathers, woven tops, bottoms, and outerwear…just about every category.

Better yet, I had built out a supply chain and sourcing base that spanned across three continents and over 10 countries. With that base I was really able to understand on a granular level how to work with the factories no matter what country I was in nor what language barrier I ran into.

Oliver Logan is really the culmination of all of that time spent in factories (and on airplanes) learning and understanding how to improve the manufacturing process, recognizing the challenges, and optimizing the inefficiencies. A big differentiator from us and the rest of the pack is that we aim to deliver an aspirational product at an attainable price point with a focus on supply chain sustainability, comfort, and durability—our products are backed by a lifetime guarantee.

(H):  Where are your jeans manufactured, and what kind of oversight do you maintain to ensure you’re being a good partner with your international workers?

(OT):  Our jeans are manufactured in various parts of China, Vietnam, and a bit here in Los Angeles. We work with various fabric mills in our manufacturing countries as well as some in Turkey and Italy. There are internal processes that we have put in place to ensure that we are being a good partner to our international workers.

One is that we require all of our factory partners to be WRAP certified. WRAP is the international gold-standard for worker protection and ensures safe, lawful, humane, and ethical labor conditions. Furthermore, I have a team based in Hong Kong that is routinely checking in on our factory partners and working with the owners on worker empowerment programs such as additional education classes and off-site team bonding.

I am constantly visiting these factories myself as well to ensure that we are maintaining an enjoyable environment for our factory workers, as well as to check on quality control of our products.

(H):  Can you tell me a bit more about your process of treating jeans…dyeing, distressing and adding any other “finishes?”

(OT):  We are making strides to get away from the “traditional” method of distressing our jeans. It’s a toxic and wasteful process which is a combination of a lot of physical labor, chemicals, wasted water, wasted energy, and more chemicals.

Some of our products have already moved away from that process and rely on a much more sustainable practice using ozone and laser machines to do the distressing. The ozone machine allows us to drop the color from a dark indigo to a light vintage fade using mainly air pressure.

Then for the dry process we have been utilizing some laser machines that do the whiskering and destruction on their own. Every time I see it happen, I think of James Bond in Goldfinger. My goal is that we will have completely broken away from the “traditional” method and just rely on sustainable manufacturing by 2020.

(H):  There’s been a lot in the news lately about the environmental impact of “big denim”…what steps do you take to minimize the use of resources and manage waste (use of water, dyes getting released into the waste system, etc.)?

(OT):  Some of the low hanging fruit that we addressed at the inception of Oliver Logan to reduce our environmental impact was to utilize existing materials (fabric, trims, threads, etc.), keep our manufacturing base tight and close to one another, and to not over produce product based on arbitrary projections or gut feelings (we have all been there).

We have since taken it further by only working with mills, laundries and dye house that use dyes approved by the European REACH standard or use DyStar indigo (the most environmentally friendly indigo available). Our laundries and fabric mills have developed and maintained waste water treatment and recycling systems that meet all local environmental standards, are able to recycle more than 80% of the water used, and are reducing their reliability on conventional energy and focusing more on solar energy.

All of our supply chain partners have ISO14001 certification (international standard that specifies requirements for an effective environmental management system), OEKO-TEX Standard 100 certification (textiles and fabrics are certified free of harmful chemicals), or WRAP certification (safe, lawful, human, and ethical manufacturing).

Whatever residue is left from the laundry or mill is then collected by local municipality and is turned into industrial building materials. Also woven into our DNA at Oliver Logan is our transparency. You can email us or chat with us about any of our products to understand where and how they were made. Information regarding our supply chain and factories will soon be available on our site for customers to see.

(H):  A lot of guys recoil at the idea of fashion…they don’t love the idea that styles change with the seasons and often wardrobe staples are tainted with gimmicky flourishes (I have been that guy most of my life). What’s your secret sauce for attracting new customers with something fresh that doesn’t feel like new for new’s sake?

(OT):  So I am that guy, too. I like my fashion to be effortless, comfortable, durable, and timeless. We leave the gimmicky flourishes for those other guys. You know, the ones that make clothes very fast and very cheap.

I like to think of our product as a collection of effortless essentials. We don’t work on the industry standard seasonal calendar in which you have to reinvent yourself every 60 days just to keep up with the trends. Don’t get me wrong, we will continue to create and evolve but it will be seasonless. Our guy can rest assured knowing that whatever product he gets from us now, he can get from us in 2 years or 10 years and it will still look good.

(H):  For many of our readers, wearing non-selvedge denim would be heresy. Have you converted others to non-selvedge denim?

(OT):  I always laugh at this because it makes me think of my brother. He is a loyal reader of Heddels and a traditionalist in every sense of the word. Up until somewhat recently his entire closet consisted of 13oz.-15oz. raw selvedge jeans and some stiff duck canvas pants.

It wasn’t too long ago that we found him in a bathtub reading a book wearing a new pair of 501s…you read that correctly (Oh, we know!—JB). It was around that time that I convinced him to try on our Roxbury Slim fit in the ½ Year Deep Blue wash using our core 99% cotton 1% comfort stretch fabric. He was a fan to say the least. Trust me, if he can convert I believe others can too.

(H):  What would you say to get them to take a chance on your brand?

(OT):  We have evolved from fax machines to smart phones. Why not try something new? The worst that could happen is that you tried on a really comfortable pair of jeans but realized you would still like to communicate with a fax machine. Conversely, you may have just discovered your love of comfort, quality, and affordability. And if that didn’t convince you, we have we have free shipping and free returns.

Next up is Zahra Ahmed, CEO of the brand DL1961.

(H):  Tell me a little about the history of the brand…how long you’ve been making jeans, and what you feel differentiates you from the pack.

(ZA):  We are a New York-based brand on a mission to do things differently. Our collection includes denim for women, men, and kids, all with premium quality and unparalleled comfort. DL uses premium materials and innovative fibers to ensure durable, high-retention denim that looks great and never loses shape.

Each pair of DL1961 jeans is made from ethically sourced, premium cotton, and water-efficient botanic fibers. Since launching in 2008, we’ve been driven by passion, inspired by our environment, and built on innovation & creativity.

Discover jeans with superior fabrics that look great and feel better. An average DL1961 jean takes 3.5 hours, 8 gallons of water and less than 1 kilowatt hour to make. A traditional pair of jeans is made using 1,500 gallons of water. That’s not environmentally acceptable.

(H):  Where are your jeans manufactured, and what kind of oversight do you maintain to ensure you’re being a good partner with your international workers?

(ZA):  Our factory and offices are fully compliant with International, Social, and Environmental & Quality Standards. We are committed to ethical practices, and our family owned, eco-friendly mill is dedicated to technical innovation and reducing waste. Our factory is regularly audited by a third party to ensure industry standards are maintained. This means our skilled employees can count on a safe and superior workplace.

(H):  Can you tell me a bit more about your process of treating jeans…dying, distressing and adding any other “finishes?”

(ZA):  Our factory utilizes DyStar Indigo Vat 40% Solution to achieve maximum wash variation. Not only is this natural dye developed by a manufacturer that is RSL certified (sustainably compliant processes), this solution ultimately makes it easier and quicker to purify the water used.

We use two 24-Ropes dyeing machines with a capacity of 140,000 meters in one run and YILMAK machines with temperature-controlled dye boxes and fully automated feeding system to achieve consistent color. We use Ozone Machines to minimize energy and water usage while providing a cleaner and safer workplace.

In addition, this process allows us to create a wide range of washes. We use lasers to create the custom cuts and detailing we’re known for. This process eliminates harmful and toxic gasses typically found in the chemicals used in the denim industry.

(H):  There’s been a lot in the news lately about the environmental impact of “big denim”…what steps do you take to minimize the use of resources and manage waste (use of water, dyes getting released into the waste system, etc.)?

(ZA):  Our factories elevate the standards of sustainable practices and production. We utilize some of the most innovative and sustainable machinery in the world. Our Environmental Impact Measurement (EIM) software by Jeanologia monitors every piece of denim we make, tracking its water consumption and dye usage.

(H):  A lot of guys recoil at the idea of fashion…they don’t love the idea that styles change with the seasons and often wardrobe staples are tainted with gimmicky flourishes (I have been that guy most of my life). What’s your secret sauce for attracting new customers with something fresh that doesn’t feel like new for new’s sake?

(ZA):  FABRIC. FIT. FUNCTION. The DL man values quality and comfort when shopping for denim. He gravitates towards a polished, modern look, and pairs his denim with tailored classic pieces. He is intensely brand and fit loyal. He is looking for jeans that are ready-to-wear in his inseam, with options for every season.

(H):  For many of our readers, wearing non-selvedge denim would be heresy. Have you converted other to non-raw denim…what would you say to get them to take a chance on your brand?

(ZA):  We built DL on the foundations of quality, fit, innovation, and sustainability. Our passion comes to life with our collections. These pieces will become the most reliable in your wardrobe.

OK, there’s a lot in those last couple interviews. To avoid getting lost in a blizzard of initialed organizations, here’s what I think are the key points for takeaway. For starters, both these guys clearly give a damn, and that ain’t nuthin’. The right way to do things and the “cost-effective” way to do things is rarely the same way, so I have to assume that the approach they’re each taking eats into their bottom line (though there’s undeniably a fiscal upside to building a reputation on doing things the right way).

And beyond the environmental benefits of more responsible manufacturing practices, each was also highly sensitive to being good partners to their overseas workers. The bedrock truth is that global manufacturing, especially where clothing is concerned, is the new normal, so it’s no longer a question of if companies use foreign labor, but instead how will they treat those workers.

(I spoke to another clothing exec who does his manufacturing in Egypt, and he confided in me that in his direct experience, the most reprehensible “sweatshop” working conditions he’s encountered aren’t in China or India or the Middle East, but instead in New York City and Los Angeles. Remember—made in America has evolved to become much more about philosophy than geography.)

So for these two big-brand-department-store-denim-honchos, they’re taking real steps to make jeans responsibly and treat makers with humanity. “But,” as you may be shouting as you read this, “that’s great—too bad they make cheesy pre-treated, “pre-finished” jeans!”

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Look, I’m old enough to remember (and have worn) “designer” jeans, acid-washed jeans, and every incarnation of popular denim since the 1970s. Some of those looks were pretty awful, and the distressing techniques were clearly a long way from coming into their own. But that’s no longer the case—there are plenty of “finished” jeans out there (by these makers and others) that look pretty darn close to jeans you’ve had and worn for a while, and do so on day-one.

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Oliver Logan Straight Cut…for pre-fades, not bad at all.

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Oliver Logan Straight Cut (no selvedge line to see, but I cuff ’em anyway)

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Oliver Logan Straight Cut–a little stretch goes a long way…

But more than that, there are a host of options from companies like Oliver Logan and DL1961 that aren’t distressed but instead are solid colors like gray or black…mauve or white…olive and khaki and straight up red (to say nothing of a huge spectrum of blue).

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DL1961 Nick in Slim…back in black

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DL1961 Nick in Slim in black

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DL1961 Nick in Slim in black

The 5-pocket jean style is now more a “pants style” and need not be made with tried and true indigo. And by employing pre-washing techniques along with adding a percent or two of “stretch” into their “jeans,” the result is a pair of bottoms that work with you and your body, not against (c’mon…you know you know what I’m talking about…when you try to bend a certain way and your selvedge says, “Nah, this is as far as we feel like going”).

But hey, this isn’t a contest and you need not pick a side. But please don’t feel traitorous should you opt for comfort and ease of wear (at least once in a while). There is something to be said for being able to wear your jeans and toss them into the washer and dryer without having to worry about…well, all the crap we worry about when it comes to the oh-so-precious act of cleaning our fancy jeans (babies, orchids and especially baby orchids require less gentility).

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Oliver Logan in Slim white…perfectly appropriate for San Diego’s endless summer

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Oliver Logan in Slim white

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DL1961 Nick Slim in petal

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DL1961 Nick Slim in petal

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DL1961 Nick Slim in petal

I still believe in the idea that earned fades are better fades, but as I’ve noted in past pieces about styles and brands that don’t fall into that classic Heddels “purist” category, it’s 2020 and it only makes sense to live like we’re fully aware of that.

After all, you’re not reading this from a typed, mimeographed and stapled “zine”—any device that lets you access Heddels content has more “technology” in it than was included on the craft that landed on the moon. As ancient texts and The Byrds told us, “to everything there is a season,” and sometimes some stretchy white denim scratches the itch, or you don’t feel like blowing $300+ on some skinny black selvedge jeans that you only wear when honoring your inner-Dave Grohl.

A diversity of fits, colors and fabrics is fun, and if the big thing holding you back from exploring that world was the environmental/humanitarian irresponsibility of it all, well, you can rest easy and have at it (so long as you do your due diligence beforehand). I certainly can’t speak for every jean maker out there, but the folks I spoke with (though it was a small sample) feels very encouraging that good people are making diverse styles of “jeans” you can feel good about buying, and even better about wearing.