to sustainably-dyed denim
Wrangler, the iconic denim company, synonymous with cowboys and country cool was in Berlin last week to announce an innovative new technology set to upset the denim industry. That denim color that we all know and love does not, in fact, come naturally. Conventional denim is made by weaving together indigo-dyed yarn and white yarn, thereby creating the signature blue color. This dyeing process uses an enormous amount of energy and water, and results in an alarming amount of waste.
As part of its ambitious sustainability goals, Wrangler partnered with researchers at Texas Tech University to come up with a new foam dyeing method called Indigood. It’s a process that eliminates the use of water and uses 60% less energy. Instead of using the traditional dying method, the Indigood technique transfers the indigo dye to jeans using a dry foam. The new technique is currently being used in Wrangler’s premium Icon collection. The jeans are made from recycled denim and dyed in the Valencia-based Tejidos Royo textile mill, which worked with the company to integrate the technology into their denim production.
Interview sat down with Roian Atwood, the senior director of global sustainable business at Wrangler’s parent company, Kontoor Brands, Inc. We wanted to learn more about Wrangler’s sustainable initiatives and future plans for innovation.
EILEEN BERNARDI Can you talk about the evolution of sustainability at Wrangler?
ROIAN ATWOOD I’ll start with myself. We all have to pay some sort of homage to where we’ve come from. I grew up in a beautiful place in Maine, where the mountains meet the sea, and it sort of commands a respect for nature. From an early age I’ve had a reverence for everything living. My first job as a teenager was working on a boat, being out on the ocean and looking back at the landscape. This idea of the landscape, living things and ecosystems sort of permeates everything I’ve ever done in my career.
EB In what way?
RA The way an ecosystem evolves. Look at the way a field that goes untouched, over 10-15 years becomes a scrub woodland forest, and ultimately a mature forest 150 years later. This idea of an evolving ecosystem is the approach we’ve taken to sustainability at Wrangler. It’s this idea that technology evolves, it doesn’t stay stagnant. There needs to be an interconnection between the beginning and the end of a process. The individual pieces are not meaningful unless they’re connected, so we started thinking about the system as a whole. Originally we were very focused on those things that would create a good ROI (return on investment) while also having a positive environmental impact. That’s pretty typical practice and it makes good business sense. This was a good place to start and it started a transformation. It initiated a discussion about what kind of company we wanted to be in the world we live in today. The conversation shifted and we started thinking of the company as an ecosystem, exploring all the parts of our supply chain and what needed to be improved.
EB And what needed to change?
RA Make no mistake, we’ve been doing a lot of good things for fifteen years, like waste water recycling. But it was about moving beyond cost engineering and asking ourselves the tough questions. If we set a goal, how might we focus and actually achieve that target. Whether it’s water reduction or innovations around foam, it’s about how elegant and meaningful that ecosystem can be. I’m really proud of the direction we’ve taken. You can’t do everything at once or you paralyse yourself, and experience a sort of discord. It’s about starting with one piece of the ecosystem and going from there.
“I think that where sustainability gets it wrong is that we pit different decisions against each other”
EB Was the culture at Wrangler amenable to these sustainable initiatives or did it take a lot of convincing on your part?
RA Convincing isn’t the right word, we had to do an exploration. Any one company, Wrangler included, gets focused on business: taking a product to market and satisfying consumer needs and retail accounts. This is all correct and what we need to be doing. But levels of awareness have been rising among employees and leadership, thanks in large part to the youth of the world who are educating us and inspiring a reframe of how we need to conduct ourselves in the future. So yeah it’s about how you embrace that reframe. You could ignore it, put on blinders or you could stop, pause, reflect and consider a role in which we are a good corporate citizen. That has not been a hard sell, and it’s something that resonates with all of the leaders. The biggest challenge is the ability to articulate that, putting together a coherent understanding of all the world’s challenges in a short amount of time, especially considering all the other amount of business we do. But I challenge myself and all the functional leaders to drive this thinking into the business.The cultural transformation is predicated on our skills to be able to infuse what’s going on in the world and represent it in a way that’s meaningful to our business, interconnected with our business. The challenge is in finding how to talk about it, rather than receptivity.
EB How have farmers and traditional Wrangler customers in the US responded to these initiatives? Is sustainability an important topic for them?
RA We don’t give people enough credit that they care. It’s easy to say that a certain demographic or consumer doesn’t care or that it’s not part of their consideration. But I think the bigger challenge is that they care in different ways. They care about a sequence of things: their families, the vitality of their own well being. I think that is where sustainability gets it wrong is that we put different decisions against each other. We ask them to make decisions about sustainability as this premium exclusive thing, a lifestyle choice that they can’t participate in, and I think this fuels a divide. The more that we can be a brand that democratizes sustainability, making it accessible for more…that’s where I’d like to be. Because that’s where the real change happens. People should be able to fulfill their needs and purchase products that ultimately have sustainable characteristics. People love our brand and we’re doing it because we believe in it. There’s no other value proposition that needs to be made. We don’t have to sell or convince or make an argument, we’re just showing up in the marketplace.
EB So accessibility is a priority?
RA Absolutely. Right now Indigood is only available in our premium products, but every company has to start somewhere. You take your key learnings and ladder it down through the rest of your business. Getting to this point has been a process. Take the foam dying process. We’re using a machine from the 1970s. We took out the engine and swapped it out. This is radical collaboration happening, and it’s happening in the most scrappy and ingenuity driven kind of way. It’s come together in a pure, no holds barred approach to innovation and sustainability. We’re going to make this happen. We have Spanish craftsmanship, American ingenuity, and the brilliance that’s gone behind this machinery. And this speaks volumes.
“From original workwear heritage to modern day fashion. Denim unites us all.“
EB I’d like to talk a bit more about democratizing sustainability and the urban/rural divide. Is Wrangler making a conscious effort to bridge this divide? Is this one of the reasons for the collaboration with Lil Nas X, for example?
RA From a brand lens I don’t see this divide the same way. Of course there is an urban/rural divide, but I’d say that it’s largely predicated on economics. In the US and many geographies, rural communities have experienced a significant amount of poverty, and therefore a feeling of being left out. So I don’t see it as opposite ends of politics, but rather as a debate about priorities. I believe technology and innovation have the potential to return positive economics to rural geographies, and I believe, ultimately, this is one of the underlying definitions of sustainability. I think there is a way that rural communities can thrive that doesn’t compromise the politics and priorities of an urban environment. I think there is a very conscious desire of all people to enjoy life, to thrive, to be able to be the best of who they are in there respective geography. Wrangler comes out of the American West, out of the code of the west. But that’s not our ending point, you know. There’s not a lot of cowboys left. Long live cowboys, but more importantly long live those ethics and values that come out of that region. It’s standing up for what’s right, and this is universal, whether you’re in a rural or urban area. This is the idea we want to disseminate. From original workwear heritage to modern day fashion. Denim unites us all.
EB What are your plans for the future?
RA Indigood is our promise and commitment to insure that nothing shows up negative in the world…that everything we do has a positive connectivity to our supply chain, our value chain and the people associated with it. We have very specific impact goals to drive the brand. We have a lot of faith in confidence in foam and we want to bring it to other geographies. We invested in Indigood for the world, and we hope other companies adopt it. We did it for our industry and if we can make this positive contribution now, early, it just means that everyone benefits. We’ll take the technology to Asia next, and the Western hemisphere shortly thereafter. But if there are other technologies that can achieve the same vision. So be it. That’s why Indigood is a promise and not just a technology. It’s our commitment to following those best and innovative practices, wherever they might take us. Foam may just be one step in the journey. Everything evolves. It’s hard for us to conceive what the next step might be because this is such a slam dunk. It’s an amazing technology, but let’s keep an open spot for anything that might happen in the future.
Interview EILEEN BERNARDI