The round table discussion, which took place at the “Injeanious” event organized by Isko in Düsseldorf on November 17, involved François Girbaud, denim expert and founder, Marithé+ François Girbaud; Marco Lucietti, global marketing director Sanko/Isko division; Dirk Lehmann, publishing director & sales director, Sportswear International and Markus Hefter, ISPO exhibition group director. Moderator was Sabine Kühnl, editor-in-chief, Sportswear International. The session analyzed what paths and challenges the denim and sportswear industry will be taking and facing in the future especially considering the importance of sustainability –from both the industry and consumer’s perception– for years to come.

From left to right: Marco Lucietti, François Girbaud, Dirk Lehmann, Markus Hefter and moderator Sabine Kühnl.
Photo: Isko
From left to right: Marco Lucietti, François Girbaud, Dirk Lehmann, Markus Hefter and moderator Sabine Kühnl.

Sabine Kühnl: What will the consumer be like in the next 10 years?

Marco Lucietti: Sustainability is quite hot for our industry right now, despite not really important for consumers, although I guess consumers will be able to understand that sustainability will be a key aspect for their purchase choices. The consumer will grow conscious about it as firstly, according to studies, in 2030, we will have to decide if we want to feed people or grow cotton, and secondly because information is also available thanks to digital media and we all be more conscious about risks we are running. Isko will do its best to try and inform people about the fact that a change is happening whether they want it or not. So in ten years I’m sure consumers will be more and more caring about responsible innovation and about the quality of the products they will be wearing.

François Girbaud: I did many things in those years – polluting the planet, inventing stone wash and similar things. I’ve just came back from Cop 22 [Marrakech Climate Change Conference held from 7 to 18 November] but I don’t see any progress. We have to make a change, but nothing has changed for so many years: many people are still wearing jeans aged with permanganate, girls always want to wear the same super tight jeans...ok, beautiful, but we have to bring a change and give young people a possibility to again create new garments. That one is our responsibility. People like how Isko is investing in research. Differently from some designers or brands that are not even trying to create: They simply copy ideas without respecting anybody. Many companies use ozone and laser but they don’t know what that's all about. They just go and buy a service!

Dirk Lehmann: By comparing consumers’ behaviors from 2004 to 2014, fashion consumption has decreased from 3.8% to 1.4%. People generally spend much less on fashion than ten years ago because as products are getting cheaper, they are expecting to buy more and spend less. For this nobody is ready to spend more on a t-shirt produced according to sustainable criteria.

I think it is important that we all start educating our clients. Sustainability is not only about how much water or energy I save to produce a pair of jeans, but also about taking care of the health of workers, of the whole supply chain and transparency, a word that is necessary for everybody's future.


Markus Hefter: Already in 2002 there was a big hype of sustainability. All brands wanted to focus on sustainability, but retailers thought that consumers were not ready to pay more for it. In the last years, after Greenpeace attacked brands such as North Face, Mammuth and Patagonia, the pressure is higher, but, differently from the denim industry, the sports world can count on its own industry association – the European Outdoor Industry Association. They have opened an office in Brussels and can face the European Parlament, talk about crucial topics and act as a whole industry.


Kühnl: Can involving governments help the situation?

Girbaud: We need a label as we already know how to make a jeans and save water. Unfortunately we are also in constant talks with politicians but they don’t care.

When you buy you do a political act...I visited many countries, Pakistan, Bangladesh...and one can find two million of people working in the denim industry ingesting all day noxious chemicals that cause illnesses. This is how people get killed. When I launched our slogan “Rebel not criminal” I meant that jeans have to be a form of rebellion but today it is nothing like that. When Hamnett or Westwood went to see Margaret Thatcher for protesting against Pershing missiles - that was a rebellious act. Today all these young ladies buying at H&M are not rebelling.

Lucietti: The industry is far beyond today than governments. Regulating by law may help, but we should just have one standard. There are so many have 200 different labels which are meaning something to someone but nothing to someone else.

Dirk: A government cannot regulate it as there are too many targets and too many countries involved. Some chemical levels are allowed in one country and not in another one. The whole industry should fix such standards.

There was also time for drinks and networking during the Injeanious event.
Photo: Isko
There was also time for drinks and networking during the Injeanious event.

Kühnl: Can you define what is exactly sustainability?

Lucietti: Rather than “sustainability”, we prefer to promote a different type of more complete consciousness we call “responsible innovation”. We do know that our industry is polluting, so the role of a big player as Isko is to try to act as responsible as possible, not only in terms of production but also in terms of compliance and ethics, another important side of our business. We try to have a 360-degree approach using whenever possible organic cotton –which we grow ourselves-, spinning yarns with the latest technologies, saving water and trying to have on board in the value chain that is following us (garment makers and brands) people sharing the same values. Given our dimension in the industry we cannot lie because it is part of our core values. For us responsible innovation is getting to be our long term competitive advantage.

Our big role is to shift consumers' perception for sustainable products from cheap to something valuable and beautiful. If we will be able to push this shift we will win.

Kühnl: Does the industry need certification?

Hefter: Some companies are doing a great job in certifying. Blue Sign, a Swiss company, makes clear and transparent every productive step of a company's process and delivers different types of certifications according to different standards. The biggest challenge is that people don’t understand sustainable labeling. They are so different and so complicated, but some companies as Patagonia and VD are perceived as sustainable. The consumers understand them, but that is not for their labelling because the brand has to communicate the real value of the brand.

Kühnl: What is the best way for approaching the consumer in the future?

Girbaud: We relaunched our M+FG brand through direct communication with customers. People are happy about finding the brand they love after three years. We talk directly and exchange opinions with them. It is like a community of 4,000 customers. Though, they are not followers, but real customers for a lifetime.

I worked for Uniqlo and I have learned a lot, but I also understood that I cannot fight against big chains. For this I closed all my shops and started going directly to the customer. Forget the times of creators of the '80s. That old system of fashion shows and applauses has disappeared and doesn’t work anymore. We have to reinvent something else and we as M+FG are doing a great job, have a lot to say and put something new in the market, new fibers, new products new ideas,...


Lehmann: I would rather opt for a double strategy –one aimed at consumers only and a B2B one with a completely different concept. The B2B one would be more brand-driven and another one more image-driven aimed at the consumer.


Hefter: We notice that there is great interest in our show from consumers' side as 6-7 percent of the visitors of our website are consumers looking for new content and information and posting all that on social networks. Despite this, the same trade show concept cannot be successful for retailers and end consumers, as you have to speak differently to both audiences and work according to different timing and interests. Consumers would be frustrated not being able to buy products they see on show. Our concept is completely B2B.

Though our way to include the end consumers is online. We launched an open innovation platform three years ago and it was very successful as they sent us many ideas and suggestions.


Lucietti: We are an ingredient not a brand. We are trying to educate people at the different touchpoints of the value chain. We sell fabrics to brands and retailers. Our role is to inform brands and retailers about the different approach of sustainability. Referring to consumers it is the right time for ingredients as ingredients show trannsparence as a guarantee for good final products.