Making Balance Possible
In Conversation with Nicolas
Meet the pioneer making denim kinder to the planet
Denim is one of the world’s most iconic and well-loved fabrics. Many of us have a favorite pair of jeans, but we might not know much about where they came from, or what it takes to make denim into the style we know and love.
The traditional process for finishing denim – using physical and chemical treatments to change the way the garment looks and feels – is particularly environmentally taxing. As a tough, durable fabric, denim has to undergo an intensive laundry process to change its color and texture. Making a typical pair of jeans ready to wear uses a huge amount of water (70 liters per pair) and energy (1.5 kW h per pair), as well as potentially hazardous chemicals.
Nicolas Prophte is more aware of denim’s impact than most. He is Vice President of the Denim Center at Tommy Hilfiger’s parent company, PVH Corp. – the first hub in Europe dedicated to setting new standards for producing denim in a faster, more consistent and more environmentally friendly way. He wants to see change in the denim industry so that our go-to jeans and jackets don’t have to damage the planet.
“I’m a denim guy,” Nicolas says. “I love the denim industry. But I also know its limitations. I want to be part of the transformation of the whole industry, to work out how we can shape it in a new way. I’m here to engage the top players in the industry to make sure that what we do, we do in the right way for workers and the environment.”
I love the denim industry. But I also know its limitations. I want to be part of the transformation of the whole industry, to work out how we can shape it in a new way.
The PVH Denim Center has already made strides toward a more sustainable process. Their work meant that in Spring 2019, TOMMY JEANS launched the first 100% recycled jeans using leftover cotton scraps from cutting tables and factory floors, as well as thread from recycled plastic bottles and more-sustainable buttons. They have also launched the Lower Impact Denim program, which uses Jeanologia’s Environmental Impact Measurement (EIM) tool to measure the amount of water, energy and chemicals used to finish denim garments. Through looking holistically at the manufacturing process and driving innovations in the supply chain – including selecting specific fabrics and recycling water – the PVH Denim Center can now finish a pair of jeans using just 10 liters of water, and many of the harmful chemicals typically used can now be replaced by lasers and more sustainable chemicals. In 2019, over two million Tommy Hilfiger denim pieces were finished with lower impact globally.
The progress Nicolas and his team have made so far has not been without its challenges. “Some of the laundries are less mature or evolved in this process, and we have found some resistance. Our role as PVH has been to show the laundries that we have a clear vision and some very precise targets, so that they come with us on this journey.”
I want to engage the younger generation in following the same purpose, so they can take over. The game is a long way from being finished – but change has already happened, and will keep happening, step by step.
There is more work to be done to make denim more sustainable, on the creation of the fabric before it reaches the laundry. In 2019, Tommy Hilfiger made over 600,000 denim pieces with at least 20% post-consumer recycled cotton – but Nicolas is determined to grow these numbers. “There are a lot of stages, and a lot of different technology players in spinning, weaving and dyeing. But to improve these processes, we can apply what we have learned from the Lower Impact Denim program so far. You engage with different parts of the industry, you create your own targets, and you keep evolving them. We need to be strong and have a clear vision but also build together and involve others whose expertise can shape things.”
Most importantly, creating real change in the denim industry is about taking a long-term view. We must, Nicolas says, keep moving toward a vision of a distant future – and not let that distance prevent small changes being made today. “There’s a lot to do. And whatever I’m doing now, I have a feeling it won’t be enough. I want to engage the younger generation in following the same purpose, so they can take over. The game is a long way from being finished – but change has already happened, and will keep happening, step by step.”