Jeans are the absolute street wear stars – the indestructible, perennial favourite among the trousers. They go with everything, fit well and are rugged and sexy. And every single one of us has at least one pair in our closets.
But have you ever asked yourself what sorts of conditions jeans are produced under? Exploitation of workers in the factories, enormous amounts of water used and pesticides on the cotton fields are just a few of the things on the daily manufacturing agenda. And this is before the fabric has even been bleached. The process of sandblasting to give jeans that trendy “used look” is extremely unhealthy for workers, and has caused at least 54 deaths in Turkey.
But do we really have to do entirely without the wardrobe staple we have all grown to love?
For over 10 years now, a fashion brand from the Netherlands has been working to provide the solution: Kuyichi is a pioneer in fair and organic denim production. The brand has been featured in many of Europe’s most influential fashion and lifestyle magazines, including Vogue and ELLE. Monique Voornemann of Kuyichi told us more about their fashion.
Kuyichi was the first fashion label to offer fair and ecologically produced jeans in 2001. Although it is a commercial fashion brand, it was initially founded by the Solidaridad NGO. What was the motive?
Solidaridad wanted to introduce organic cotton into the clothing industry. The NGO had been working on developing a fair trade organic coffee and fruit business in Latin America, and they discovered that the cotton industry caused a lot of pollution and poverty among indigenous people and factory workers. At that time, some brands like Patagonia had already started using organic cotton for outdoor clothing, but the fashion industry hardly used any organic cotton at all. Solidaridad tried to convince the big players in the denim industry to use organic cotton in order to improve the working and living conditions in developing countries. But none of the brands were interested, and Solidaridad started their own fashion brand in response.
How are Kuyichi jeans produced more ecologically than others?
Our strength lies in the very high percentage of certified organic cotton and other sustainable materials. Most of the denim fabrics in Kuyichi’s jeans are GOTS, Global Organic Content Standard, certified. This certification aims to provide meaningful protection to the environment, all workers involved in the chain from the fields to the factories, and the health and well-being of the consumer. The fabrics are at least 95% organic in content and are treated with certified dyestuffs; the fibres were organically grown and the fabric was made in an eco-friendly way.
“They tried to convince the big players to use organic cotton. But none of them was interested.”
What about the share of jeans that are not GOTS certified?
Some other Kuyichi jeans are Organic Content Standard 100 (OCS 100) certified, which also requires a minimum of 95% organic material. A small part of our collection contains recycled cotton or recycled polyester; for these garments we use OCS Blended and Global Recycle Standard certification. In short: Kuyichi is not the only sustainable denim brand, but we do primarily use certified organic materials.
Apart from caring about sustainable materials, Kuyichi also claims to be working towards improving labour conditions. What does that entail?
Kuyichi works in accordance with the Fair Wear Foundation (FWF) verification standard, an independent, non-profit organisation dedicated to improving labour conditions for garment workers. We committed to implementing the eight labour standards set out in the FWF’s Code of Labour Practices (CoLP), including no forced or child labour, freedom of association, payment of a living wage, no discrimination, reasonable working hours and conditions, and a legally binding employment relationship.
How is this “living wage” defined?
The living wage is determined by the Fair Wear Foundation and varies per country. The wage paid for a standard work week should not only meet the basic needs of workers and their families, but also provide some discretionary income. ‘Basic needs’ include costs like housing (with the basic services, including electricity), nutrition, clothing, healthcare, education, drinking water, childcare, transport, and savings.
Do you also include shipping in your sustainability strategy?
Yes. We try to avoid air transport, for example, and use trucks and boats instead. We use trucks and ships to transport fabrics from the spinning and weaving mills in Turkey to the garment factories in Turkey and Tunisia. We also measure our headquarters’ annual CO2 emissions and try to take reduction measures. And we compensate for the remaining CO2 emissions by investing in sustainable energy projects.
The jeans supply chain is long, from growing the cotton to dyeing and sewing the fabric. Where are your jeans produced?
Like most denim brands, Kuyichi does not have its own fabric mills or sewing factories. Instead, we work with several suppliers who are each responsible for a part of the production process. Our organic cotton is grown in Turkey and Kirgizstan. The fabrics are made in Turkey and Italy. The stitching is done in Turkey and Tunisia, and so is the laundering. Zippers, fasteners, buttons and rivets come from Germany, the labels from Italy. You’ll find detailed information on our website.
Tunisia: cutting, sewing & laundry
How do you make sure that all the suppliers adhere to your social and ecological requirements?
Kuyichi carefully selects and monitors all suppliers on a number of criteria, including environmental aspects, working conditions and, of course, product quality. We regularly visit factories and we have established long-term relationships with many of them. Furthermore, Fair Wear Foundation audit teams check the main factories where we produce.
"We've established long-term relationships with many suppliers."
Have you ever had problems with their reliability or the quality of their work?
Yes, unfortunately we had a quality issue with a jeans supplier in 2012. As a result, we had to invest more time on our end to achieve the quality level people are used to and expect from a brand like Kuyichi. Today, we are on the right track again with all our suppliers. However, we have to learn from the mistakes of the past; it’s a journey, a step-by-step process to offer the best, most sustainable product. We strive to solve problems in a creative way in cooperation with our suppliers.
Is there a part of the jeans production process that is impossible or almost impossible to do ecologically?
Compared to conventional cotton, organic cotton has a much lower carbon footprint and an enormously reduced grey water footprint (polluted water). However, organic cotton production still requires huge amounts of water. Also, the wet processing of jeans (pre-treatment, dyeing, printing and finishing) involves certain chemicals and requires a lot of water and energy.
What is Kuyichi doing about it? Do you sell bleached jeans, for example?
Luckily sustainable alternatives are being developed, and Kuyichi is constantly working step-by-step towards a sustainable way to add treatments like denim shading, abrasion and 3D-effects to its jeans. We do not ever use sandblasting or abrasive blasting as a finishing process for our jeans. Still numerous steps have to be taken, and we try to keep improving constantly.
Your jeans aren’t more expensive than those of the large clothing companies. How can you sell at these prices?
By keeping our profit margins low, and by opting for creative, low-cost marketing solutions instead of expensive advertising.
Turkey: manufacturing denim fabrics
This marketing strategy seems to be working well: Even without expensive advertising, Kuyichi has been featured in many of Europe’s most influential fashion and lifestyle magazines, including Vogue and ELLE. How has this been possible?
Our true story is apparently great content for the magazines and trendsetters. But our aim is to reach a broad range of people, not just the trendsetters and fashion magazines. We tell our story through our own blog as well, and interview people who inspire us.
What is your new “Who made your clothes?” campaign all about?
We have been looking for a way to become even more transparent about our production chain. Our consumers want to see how and where production takes place, where our raw materials come from – and they want to see the real people behind the products. We therefore launched a new website on January 25, 2015. For each product we show: how it’s made, where it’s made, and who made it. It is not a campaign, but the true story behind every product, from the fibre through to the zipper.
“It is not a campaign, but the true story behind every product, from the fibre through to the zipper.”
Do you feel that the market for sustainable jeans is growing, or is it rather limited?
We feel the demand for organic jeans is growing slowly, but it is not the first priority for consumers. When looking for a new pair of jeans, consumers are usually most interested in fit and comfort. Sustainability is also a criterion for a niche group of consumers.
Fashion trends in Europe change so quickly. It seems like people switching styles every six months or so. How do you deal with this challenge?
Kuyichi does not believe in fast fashion. All our clothes are designed to last: made of high quality fabrics with a timeless appearance. Slow fashion encourages people to think in terms of systems, because it recognises that the impacts of our collective choices can affect the environment and people.
Do you feel that manufacturers bear most of the responsibility for creating a fair global economy, or do you see consumers as more important drivers?
Everyone has responsibilities they have to live up to. Fashion brands play a very important role, as they determine material usage, production location, and the prices factories get for the products they make. Transparency is also the responsibility of the brands. But in the end, consumers decide what to buy.
“Everyone should take responsibly for improving the fashion industry.”
To really change the industry, everybody has to contribute: Governments in developing countries should set standards for better minimum wages and stricter legislation. Factories need to better protect their workers and pay a living wage. Consumers could shop less, and value quality above quantity. When shopping, they can look for certified organic labels or ask stores for sustainable clothing.
Fair trade is often criticised based on the fact that it will ultimately remain a niche market and cannot influence the overriding structures. What impact do you think Kuyichi can have on the global textile market?
We would like to inspire others with our knowledge of sustainability, and encourage them to do the same or even better. Kuyichi was the first to introduce organic cotton jeans, and now some other brands are also sourcing organic cotton for their collections. We’re happy to see that we raised the bar for many companies around us and we hope to inspire many more.