[Note: This story originally ran on the Swell Investing blog.]
On the high end, it takes 2,900 gallons of water to create a single pair of denim jeans, says Adam Taubenfligel, co-founder and creative director of the Los Angeles-based sustainable denim brand Triarchy. And that’s not even the worse part.
“You’re using synthetic dyes and fixing agents while you’re washing the garments and expelling it into rivers,” he says. “That water is leaching into farmland and growing into crops for people who are working in subpar conditions in factories. It’s a disaster and nobody knows that.”
If you did, Taubenfligel says, “you’d probably put those jeans down and walk out.”
Not wanting to be “that company,” Taubenfligel and his co-founders, siblings Ania and Mark, suspended production on their then-5-year-old company in 2016 and retooled their entire supply chain, from the factories they use to the materials they source. The result is denim products that save on average 1,500 gallons of water per pair and more than 1 million gallons to date.
“When we relaunched, there was nothing that carried over except the name,” he says
The aha moment for the Taubenfligel siblings came after watching “The True Cost,” a 2015 documentary that focused on the garment industry and its substantial impact on the environment. The film highlighted the wastefulness of first-world fashion, the deadly conditions in garment factories that lead to the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh and the birth defects found in the children of Indian farmers, largely due to the pesticides used to produce fast-growing, genetically-modified cotton crops.
“We felt like we couldn’t go to sleep at night,” he says. “We don’t need more stuff. We need fewer, better things.”
So Triarchy switched production to a Mexico City factory that uses 85 percent recycled water to wash its denim, thanks to a natural bacteria that eats indigo dye, leaving the water clear and reusable. For its women’s line, Triarchy switched to a blend of cotton and Tencel, a eucalyptus-based material that uses 85 percent less water than cotton to process. Taubenfligel also developed a new line, Atelier Denim, that sources and refurbishes vintage denim.
To achieve that “bleached” look on some of its products, Triarchy employed a new technology that uses an ozone-gas mixture instead of harmful chemicals. Even the buttons and labels are made from recycled material.
But that overhaul proved long and costly. Triarchy spent a year rebuilding its product line, finding the right partners and refining its process. “Sustainable washing is different than non-sustainable washing,” Taubenfligel says. “It’s a lot of mathematics, a lot of trial and error, a lot of ‘Why does that look gray?’”
Despite the challenges and added costs, Taubenfligel prefers this new path. It was either that or shut down.
“We wouldn’t have a company if it wasn’t sustainable,” he says. “We just have to make sure that our design, our marketing and our brand aesthetic matches the price points associated with it so it’s justifiable.”
Many believe they are. Triarchy won the inaugural H&M Sustainability Award at last year’s Canadian Arts & Fashion Awards. (The company started in Vancouver back in 2011.) And as more in the garment industry realize their impact on the environment, companies have reached out to Taubenfligel for insight into Triarchy’s practices, though Taubenfligel declined to name names.
But it’s a step in the right direction, he says, and it could mean a sea change in the industry as the technology improves and becomes more cost-effective.
“It’s very expensive to be sustainable,” Taubenfligel says. “As long as we keep doing this, showing that it works, then more people will get involved and grab that machinery. The more machinery that’s made, the more costs will go down. So, it’s just time, really.”