Global denim brand Lee Jeans has announced it’s launching a range of fully biodegradable jeans.
Items in the ‘Back to Nature’ collection are made using entirely compostable linen-cotton yarns, and no rivets, so that when the garment is no longer needed, the buttons can be unscrewed for re-use and the rest is just thrown into the compost, where it will biodegrade and the complete garment will return to the Earth.
The collection comprises four pieces, the brand’s classic Rider jacket and Rider jeans for men, and a belted version of the Rider jacket and wide-leg jeans for women. The fabric mix is 85 per cent cotton and 15 per cent Flax (linen), which means the fit is rigid and stretch-free, giving it a vintage feel; much like denim used to feel before companies began adding polyester (a plastic) to the weave to add comfort.
Plastic has been added to denim over the years to enhance performance, stretch and thermoregulation, in response to an increasing consumer demand for comfort and mobility.
“The most critical emerging environmental problem that our industry is going to face is pollution due to the increased amount of synthetics in denim products and the creation therefore of microplastics,” Roian Atwood, Director of Sustainability for Lee Jeans and Wrangler tells the Standard. “This polyester sheds and comes off via pilling into very small, tiny pieces into the ambient environment, which is why we are finding microplastics all throughout the globe.”
In order for the new Lee Jeans garments to be able to biodegrade, the features of a traditional 5-pocket jean were changed. All rivets, historically made of brass or metal, were removed and the leather patch on the waistband has been replaced with Jacron, a leather-look paper material made from cellulose.
Lee Jeans are not the only ones investing in biodegradable denim. Dutch jean maker Denham confirmed in November 2019 that it was launching its first range of Bio-Stretch Selvedge jeans as part of its new ‘Life is Movement’ collection and, in January, Stella McCartney announced that she would be introducing biodegradable, stretch denim (made in partnership with Italian manufacturer Candiani) as part of her autumn/winter 2020 collection.
Lee’s will however be the first to hit UK stores on February 17.
The launch comes as part of Lee Jeans’ wider sustainability initiative called ‘For a World That Works’ recently launched at Copenhagen International Fashion Fair (CIFF). The initiative, which the brand describes as ‘a vision for the future of the brand and our planet,’ centres on three main projects. In addition to the biodegradable ‘Back to Nature’ products, there’s also a project focussed on sustainable production and finishing processes, like using naturally derived dyes, dyes created from agricultural waste and lasering to distress jeans (rather than environmentally damaging acid).
Perhaps most impressive though is the third project, named Indigood Denim, which is a foam dyeing process the company has worked with a Spanish Mill in Valencia called Tejidor Royo to develop. It’s a technology, seven years in the making, that does not use water and features 89 per cent less chemicals and 65 per cent less energy than traditional dyeing. “The only water the process needs is the water to mix the solution, and to rinse the machine every few weeks. The actual dyeing process requires no water,” says Atwood.
“It’s dramatically different. It’s an entirely different way of working with indigo.”
While Lee and Wrangler are currently making less than 3 per cent of their denim this way, it’s something they are focussed on expanding. “It’s something we are committed to. Not just committed to with existing partners, but with partners of the future.”
And it’s a technology they’re keen to share. “We know we didn’t just want to do this development project and keep it exclusive to our own brands, we want to capitalise on investment of course, but with a game-changing technology like this foam, it’s an industry solution. The more brands that embrace the better image the denim industry has in the marketplace.” Gap has already placed an order with the mill they work with in Spain.
“The beauty of a foam process is because it’s all contained in a nitrogen sealed hood, and there’s a lot less process chemistry, we are exposing workers to less chemistry in general. And they don’t need to touch any wet denim dye,” explains Atwood. “The other beauty is there’s no waste water, so no blue rivers.”
The denim industry is notoriously the most polluting aspect of the generally-polluting fashion industry. And while Lee and most other denim players have an incredibly long way to go, it’s heartening to see the development of technological innovations that could potentially have massively beneficial impacts if adopted by all the major players.
“This is a pivotal technology moment for the industry,” says Atwood.