G-Star Raw, the nearly 30-year-old Dutch denim brand co-owned by singer-producer Pharrell Williams since 2016, is on a mission to clean up the dirty denim industry.
So far this year, the brand has raised awareness of eco-friendly options for producing what has been widely publicized as “the most sustainable denim ever.” The jeans are now part of the Fashion From Nature exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It has also teamed with musician and fashion muse Jaden Smith on a sustainable collection, a strategy to popularize eco-friendly denim among young shoppers.
At the same time, it’s been offering open-source access to its techniques, with the hope that they’ll catch on among other denim brands.
Leading sustainability efforts is Frouke Bruinsma, G-Star’s head of corporate responsibility for the past 10 years. From her Amsterdam office, she spoke with Glossy about how the demand for transparency has changed fashion for the better and why making the industry more sustainable must be a group effort.
How has your job changed over the past 10 years?
When we started 10 years ago, we focused only on the working conditions in our factories. We soon realized you really have to take a more holistic approach, so we started looking at the effect of production in our factories on the environment. Also, as a denim brand, 80 percent of the material we use is cotton, which requires a lot of water to grow, so we’ve had to improve the materials we use. At the same time, we’ve looked at our own operations — things like changing the bags in our stores to paper versus plastic — and we’ve prioritized giving back to the communities where we are producing: We set up the GSRD Foundation, which supports the employees in those countries with vocational training and helps them improve their entrepreneurial skills.
How are you helping other denim brands become more sustainable?
It is important to collaborate within the industry, because we are way too small to solve all the problems ourselves. You need denim mills, you need the chemical industry, you need the garment makers — you need the support of all the little elements within the chain to improve something. We can’t say we are sustainable if the rest of our supply chain isn’t on the same journey or doesn’t have the same values. And, on the other hand, it’s important that if we do something that is a game changer, we need to share it; we need to give open access. If we keep it to ourselves, nothing will change. We hope everyone will adopt the clean indigo dye we’ve developed with our partners; that’s how we can really make a change in the denim industry. And we want brands looking to become more sustainable to copy our roadmap; we can help them.
Do you also learn from other brands?
We’ve joined many different groups that have helped us get to where we are today. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition is one. Name a brand, and it’s in it: Adidas, H&M, Zara — all the main players in the fashion industry. We learn a lot from each other; it’s an informal environment, where there’s a lot of collaboration and a lot of learning.
Is pressure through social media to thank for more brands cleaning up their act?
I don’t think it’s just social media, but the fact that things have become more transparent over the years. The whole world has changed, now that somebody can be close to a factory or anything linked to the brand and can inform the world of something within a second. You have to act quicker, but it’s positive, because it’s transparency that helps you move forward and continuously improve.
Would you call increasing transparency a key focus of your job?
Transparency has been the thread of my work. In the very beginning, it moved us to do certain internal improvements. And then it moved externally: We started publishing our manufacturing map and list — if you click on our online shop, you can find where something is produced. We have a goal to become more transparent, and to publish more of where something is produced and how. It will help consumers, because as you start to educate them, they can make much more informed decisions about what they buy. We see it as a constant challenge: How can we be more transparent?
Are you also working with influencers to get the word out?
We recently teamed with Jaden Smith [on a collection]. He has strong opinions about sustainability and really wants to change things, so he’s a great partner. And he’s really influential; if he explains certain things in the field of sustainability, he raises a lot of awareness on the consumer level — and that’s exactly what we need. He is linked to the generation that needs to make the change and understand and consider sustainability.
So, who makes up your team?
There are people located in Bangladesh, in India and in China who really look after the social environment in our supply chain. Then we have a chemist who looks after all the chemicals used in our supply chain. And we have people here in Amsterdam who oversee the supply chain, assist workers in other countries, improve sustainable materials and work directly with the teams that really make the product. Finally, we have Adriana [Galijasevic], our sustainable innovator and researcher, who is exploring and finding the new things out there. But sustainability is really a part of our brand, so it’s involved in everyone’s job throughout the company, in some way.
What are your sustainability goals moving forward?
Like a lot of brands, we want to have 100 percent sustainable materials by 2020. And we now have a dream of getting all of our denim product C2C gold-certified. We’re already working on it, and it looks good; we will be able to deliver. Also, there’s already a lot of cotton out there, and [the apparel industry] uses conventional cotton to make so many garments. So one of my personal goals is to start looking into recycled cotton in the supply chain and making that available on a large scale. If we could start moving to only reusing recycled cotton in our products, we would solve a lot.
Image from the “Fashion From Nature” exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum, courtesy of G-Star.