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Supply Chain
bluesign Continues to Clean Up Fashion with Expansion into Denim, Footwear

Partnerships with brands including Madewell and Vibram will help adapt bluesign’s existing standards and guidelines for two untapped industries.

With a lineage spanning more than two decades, bluesign® is one of the longest-running and well-known apparel responsibility standards. Its guidelines require participating brands and manufacturers throughout the supply chain to adhere to strict product, worker safety and chemistry controls. Over 500 apparel and textile companies — including adidas, Asics, Nike and Primaloft, to name a few — all participate in bluesign in some capacity; and its long list of partners continues to grow.

2023 marks a cautiously ambitious new direction for bluesign as it formalizes its approach in the denim and footwear categories. Earlier this year, bluesign announced bluesign Denim — a comprehensive platform to work towards “the cleanest denim in the world,” and a partnership with global footwear component producer Vibram.

“It was something new for bluesign, and they were asking for a lot of information,” Vibram’s global director of sustainability, Marco Guazzoni, told Sustainable Brands®. “We agreed on doing it step by step.”

Both frameworks will take bluesign’s existing standards and guidelines and adapt them for two industries where it doesn’t have as much of a presence. Although 2023 marked the formal announcement for both initiatives, the actual work predates the launch by a couple of years.

Bluesign has been working with Madewell since early 2022, leading to a formal launch of several denim products using bluesign-approved fabrics. According to Madewell’s 2022 Do Well Report, the brand plans to have another 13 bluesign-approved styles by the end of 2023 (Madewell declined to comment for this story). Kutay Saritosun, bluesign’s director of brand services and partnerships for Europe and US, says bluesign has been working with Vibram and other, as-yet-unidentified brand partners on product pilots since 2021.

“We have a roadmap for footwear,” Saritosun says. “But it’s not something we can certify tomorrow — it will take at least another two years.”

He adds that by his estimation and in consideration of the traditional apparel product cycle, the earliest a fully bluesign-approved denim product would land in Madewell stores would be fall 2024. Given the complexity of “cleaning up” the denim process, which is one of the most resource-intensive within apparel, it could take longer than that.

Consumer confusion may reign

Much like other sustainable textile and chemistry standards, the external communication around bluesign-approved denim and footwear products may prove challenging for consumers.

While bluesign already has “approved” fabrics in play at Madewell, a completely approved item may not be on sale for some time. For footwear, it’s likely that a brand could adopt Vibram’s bluesign-approved sole well before it launches a fully approved sneaker. Essentially, a brand can claim that a portion of a product is “bluesign-approved” without the whole product being so; and that’s a potentially blurry line to discern for the average customer. It’s important to note these key differentiating factors in an apparel market full of claims, certifications and standards with little regulatory backing.

“There are too many distinct features within too many standards to have one consumer preference,” Paul Dillinger, VP and head of global product innovation at Levi Strauss & Co, told SB. “It’s great (that these standards are) extending their work beyond the mill and into the supply chain; but it’s about more than one message of ‘good vs. bad.’”

Levi’s recently launched a 97 percent plant-based jean and last year, released a circular denim collection — which included more easily recyclable and reusable components compared to traditional denim.

According to Daniel Waterkamp, head of bluesign Academy, bluesign is about to launch a potential solution to the communication issue in the form of “smart labeling” — a program that will attempt to bring some clarity around all bluesign-approved fabrics in external marketing and communications.

“We will very clearly spell out claims with verified data — noting what bluesign-approved is, what it’s not — and still have approval points,” he says.

Both Waterkamp and Saritosun advise that part of the communication battle is working through the conception that just because something is marketed as “sustainable” or “responsible” doesn’t necessarily mean that it was more expensive to make.

“Safe and sustainable chemistry doesn’t always need to be more expensive,” Waterkamp says. “For a brand like Vibram, the cost isn’t much higher; but marketing plays a bigger role.”

Saritosun adds that it’s economically viable because companies can work with bluesign from the systems and approaches they already have in place.

Regardless of consumer reaction to the improved messaging, it’s a positive step to help customers and industry professionals alike understand the value of shifting towards more responsible production practices, in all forms. Even if consumer adoption is slow, expanding the bluesign ecosystem to these new categories should only serve to broaden the potential of what could be.

“It’s not appropriate for us to look at consumer uptick,” Dillinger says. “Even if the consumer doesn’t respond, we shouldn’t stop trying to cut carbon emissions.”