Even if you don’t know Scott Morrison’s name, you know his jeans—or at the very least feel their impact on the way you dress today. The designer has been at the forefront of the high-end denim movement in America since it kicked into high gear at the end of the 20th century, launching Paper Denim & Cloth in 1999, Earnest Sewn in 2004, and his current venture, 3×1, in 2011. But despite a legacy of getting guys into better-fitting, better-made jeans, Morrison has a problem that’s been keeping him up at night for more than a decade: Denim, the fabric at the core of his work (and American style in general), is in deep trouble.
Though much-loved, jeans are one of the dirtiest garments produced by an already very dirty fashion industry. With the level of water and land consumption, plus the sheer volume of hazardous chemicals used, denim, in its current state, is no longer sustainable. Luckily for Morrison, and for all of us, there are some venerable minds out there working towards a solution.
In a new documentary series called Common Thread, Morrison set out to explore the state of the denim industry, and to find out how that most democratic of garments can survive the coming environmental storm. “This project was inspired by my passion for denim,” says Morrison. “But also as a reflection on today’s world and the changes taking place around us.”
Episode one takes Morrison to Italy, where he shines a spotlight on three of the main players in the birth of the luxury denim industry—fashion brand Diesel, denim manufacturer Candiani, and garment finishing company Tonello. He looks at how these multi-generational businesses take a longview approach to both financial and environmental sustainability, and how that view stands in stark contrast to the race-to-the-bottom influence of fast fashion. The documentary serves as both a peek into the future of denim, and as a love letter to the garment that has fueled Morrison’s decades-long obsession. We spoke to him about the series, and about his experiences in Italy for the first episode.
But mostly, we just wanted to know, What does the future of blue jeans look like?
Was Italy a big influence on your own denim brands?
It certainly was. Diesel was the brand I first fell in love with, for lack of a better word. It was certainly a massive inspiration for me when I started Paper Denim & Cloth in 1999. And it made sense for me to say, “Okay, we’re going to start this journey in Italy.”
And the journey is really about three things. It’s about exploring denim’s recent history, like the last 40 years, and understanding who were the people and the brands that helped us get to where we are today. And, within that, the context of trying to understand and take a look at how those businesses are doing, and then what they’ve done to pivot and redirect their efforts for the future.
What sets these Italian brands apart from the rest of the world?
One of the exciting takeaways there is that, unlike a lot of more traditional capitalist businesses, where the focus is on a quick return on investment, they take a very long term perspective on teeing up the future. Everyone we went to is like a third or fourth generation owner. It’s really about setting the table with the best of your abilities so that the next generation has something to come into that has some strength and foundation.
How are they balancing that with sustainability?
It’s about embracing change. The consumer has their need and their want for something that’s a lot more mindful. And then, also, it’s trying to become more of an industry that’s centered around technology and innovation. Like at Tonello, a company that I would call the Ferrari of industrial washing equipment and industrial garment processing. By that, I mean that they make these incredible machines and technology to make waterless washing. And they’ve been heavily involved in the creation of lasers to do garment processing for denim, really for the last 12 to 14 years.
What are the biggest challenges?
The denim business, on the whole, is one of the least-clean industries with the amount of wastewater produced and the consumption of water. It’s just not been a traditionally wonderful industry for the world. And yet it’s one of the most consumed products in the world. So we’ve all thought about this for quite some time, and we’ve had many different examples of people coming out and trying to introduce the idea of being more mindful from an environmental standpoint. But when those things have come out, they’ve typically failed.
We’ve done a bunch of different initiatives, but it drove up the cost of the garment. So the real challenge has been getting to a point where either the consumer is willing to pay more for it, which has not been the case historically, or where you get efficient enough and effective enough so that you can offer a more sustainable solution at a much closer price value proposition.
So a lot of it comes down to the consumer.
People want a more sustainable world. People are interested in being carbon neutral to some extent. But if you ask them to pay 25 percent more to have that, very few people are in a position to afford it. And I think that’s the real shift. What we’re seeing now is, for the first time, there are enough brands behind it that we’re able to say, “We demand this, we need this.” And the consumer can now see a finish line and realize that, “Hey, I don’t have to pay a ridiculous amount more.”
It’s like…There was a time when people didn’t care about organic food. They didn’t necessarily care what they were putting into their body. And now you have organic markets and Whole Foods basically taking over the industry. Now you can go into any supermarket in America and find an organic produce section that’s not that much more expensive than non-organic.
Are you optimistic about the future of denim?
I am optimistic about everything to do with the future of the denim industry. I really am. I think we, as an industry, are going through a really challenging time. And it’s not just the denim industry. I think it’s all of fashion; I think it’s all consumer products. You know, one of the first things we talk about in the documentary is, there are times when being in the business feels like it’s a fucking race to the bottom. And part of that feeling is that the consumer is telling us, “Hey, we don’t want to buy things at full price. We want to buy things on sale.” And there’s more pressure on people to make things cheaper and faster and more disposable.
At the same time, there’s, I don’t know what, like 10 million tons of unworn product ending up in US landfills every year. It’s ridiculous how much waste and how much shit is being dumped out there. And I’m not trying to lead the environmental charge. I’m just interested as a business owner, as a human being, as a consumer: What is the future going to look like? Because everyone is dealing with the same issues.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.