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The denim industry is far from being viable, with steady demand for garments at a lower price

«The system itself is not made for sustainable brands or fabrics» – Meüne tackles the problematics of denim production from sourcing, to dyeing to washing

Meüne on its way to sustainable denim

Much of the denim on the market produced these days is contaminated with toxins, chemical fertilizers, and petrochemicals. The denim fabric dyeing and washing process is even more damaging for the environment since it involves synthetic dyes and acid washes, which give the peculiar look the market is asking for. Considering this, Nahir Sarsur, founder at Meüne, is confident: «We decided to change how denim is produced and use this material to turn fashion into a fair and regenerative force» she explains. «The industry created a system in which clothes are a quick and cheap commodity, made from carelessly sourced materials and meant for immediate consumption. To work with sustainable denim, you need to have a deep understanding of all the making processes – the whole production system is not eco-friendly, making it hard to source raw materials and make the garments responsibly». For small brands trying to keep their production greener, another issue is how the sourcing and production in the fashion system work: that is the minimum of orders many suppliers require from their customers. «As a small brand, I have limited options when it comes to certain fabrics, such as recycled cotton. Running a brand that works with on-demand manufacturing to reduce waste, I struggle with minimum orders most of the time. The system itself is not made for sustainable brands or fabrics», explains Sarsur.

Meüne’s Alpaca wool

On the other side, slow fashion brands are looking for new materials to substitute cotton yarn, such as hemp and linen, that have a lower impact on the environment since they need less water and no pesticides to grow. «I’m exploring this possibility to work with hemp and linen denim in the future; some brands here in France are experimenting with them. Our main goal at the moment is working with embroideries in alpaca wool, which not only is a sustainable fabric but also supports indigenous communities in Peru», says Sarsur. «We decided to work with this fabric since alpacas do not cause land destruction, they do not damage or destroy root systems, leaving the land undamaged and allowing plants to keep growing after an alpaca has eaten it. Their wool also contains less lanoline, which makes it easier to wash it without chemicals or aggressive detergents». Choosing to work with different materials can be a practical choice from the environment’s point of view. Still, it can be hard on the manufacturing side: hemp comes with a scratchy, coarse feeling, and, as Sarsur states, it can break needles during production, making the whole process longer and more complicated. Many brands decided to work with cottonized hemp, so to use a short hemp fiber.

Denim 7
HEMP TWINE

The issues with denim’s environmental footprint

It doesn’t end with raw fabric sourcing: the majority of jeans are dyed with synthetically produced indigo, which imitates the dye’s color extracted from the Indigofera plant. Synthetic indigo is more convenient, and its properties allow producers to stone and acid wash garments more quickly, cutting the costs. Synthesizing indigo dye requires toxic chemicals, including formaldehyde, as does the dying process itself. This creates an enormous amount of pollution, contaminating the environment and affecting the health of workers. It also decomposes slowly and darkens waters, causing flora and fauna to die from the poisoning groundwater, rivers, and streams. Sarsur explains. «Indigo dye was our main concern when we had to re-think the whole production to make it greener: we struggled to find a solution, but at the end, we found an Italian supplier who uses Oeko-tex certified indigo juice, a dyeing technique engineered to achieve a superficial yarn penetration. This allows for dyes to easily be washed away during the laundry processes, creating a vintage aesthetic while also saving water and chemicals». 

Kitotex technology

The denim dyeing process’ environmental issues are not the only aspect which needs to be solved; as Sarsur explains, the denim fabric needs mordant to be fixed on cotton, and it can be polluting for the environment too, causing water and energy waste. Mordants can be just acidic, not necessarily toxic, but most companies choose to use mordants with aluminum and chromium, which can cause significant damage to the ecosystem. «Apart from organic cotton, our denim is made with natural kitotex as mordant and indigo juice dyeing» states Sarsur. Kitotex is a unique technology developed in Italy that uses chitosan, a polymer derived from shrimp shells, a waste product from the food industry, or other vegetable sources to substitute for polyvinyl alcohol, a typical water pollutant, and a source of plastic pollution. The choice of indigo dye and mordant also affects the following step of the production: the washing. Denim fabric washing has a lousy reputation for sustainable matter since, during the washing and finishing process, vast amounts of water and chemicals are used to create a faded look. Chemicals like chlorine, potassium permanganate, and sodium hypochlorite are just a few of the hazardous chemicals used at this stage. Traditional stone wash, for example, requires more than seventy liters of water only to eliminate sand residues.

 Ozone washing

«We had to find a washing solution as well, and the choice fell on Ozone washing. Apart from the aesthetic side, this is the most sustainable washing method we could find. It uses electricity and oxygen to replace many of the chemicals normally used in a traditional washing process. This choice is closely linked to the dying method. Since indigo juice only penetrates the fabric superficially, the whole Ozone washing process is very fast, guaranteeing an even lower environmental impact and energy waste while not discharging any hazardous gas» explains Sarsur. Ozone wash is only one of the new laundry processes brands are using to make their production greener: faux stone made from clay or polymers and cellulase enzyme washing treatment are some other market innovations. Applying certified dyeing, natural-based mordants, and ozone wash allows Meüne to keep their production sustainable from different points of view: «there are no plastic or synthetic fibers nor toxic chemicals in our clothes», states Sarsur. Many denim products contain percentages of polyester, nylon, or other artificial textile materials, created from petrochemicals or similar synthetic substances: these materials release dangerous toxins into the environment, which are hazardous both for producers and the final customer, who is keeping these substances in contact with the skin for long periods of time. The denim industry is still far from being viable, with a constant rise in the demand for garments at a lower price. Many small slow fashion brands are trying to involve low-impact fabrics like organic cotton, hemp, and linen and more sustainable techniques such as ozone wash: «People appreciate this, they appreciate transparency».

IMAGE GALLERY

Meüne, a project founded by Nahir Sarsur

The purpose of the project is to encourage everyone to take a step further and become a more sustainable, ethical, and conscious person, participating in the fashion transformation and leading by example. Meüne core business are denim clothes that are inspired by and partly handcrafted by the indigenous communities in the Andes, and runs fashion awareness campaigns and social projects in Latin America.

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