Shubhankar Ray, global brand director, G-Star RAW

Shubhankar Ray, global brand director, G-Star RAW

G-Star RAW is taking a unique approach to sustainability, quietly putting organic and recycled cotton, as well as unusual fibres like nettle, at the heart of its denimwear. Global brand director Shubhankar Ray told Petah Marian how the company is helping to create a legion of unknowing ethical consumers, while maintaining its credibility as an edgy denim brand.

Deciding that sustainable and ethical behaviours are now a "condition of doing business," G-Star has for the past few years been greening up its supply chain, as well as incorporating more organic cotton and other niche fibres into its clothing.

And it has taken a unique approach to achieving this goal, blending these fibres into its best selling lines with little or no fanfare. Ray believes this will have "much more of an impact" than promoting them as "green" branded ranges.

The stance has enabled the company to increase sustainable fibres from 1% of its total fibre use in 2011 to 10% in 2012 - with its sights set on hiking it further in years to come.

"Separating sustainable lines give them a stigma," Ray explains. "At the beginning, we had the separate organic line, the separate nettle line and the separate recycled line. We didn't want these to be clichés, highlighting them in the store with green this, green that."

Combining a quiet moral conviction about the importance of this stance with a creative branding mind, Ray says: "We thought it would be cleverer to have the most directional, innovative styles - the coolest, newest stuff - in sustainable materials. This means it is getting prime position, because you're putting it in your best styles, and forcing it a little bit."

"The principal thing is that people buy cool denim from G-Star. We want people to buy it because they like it, because it performs, because it's durable and the price is right. Then after this, it's just a secondary benefit to know that it's 100% organic rather than something we hit them over the head with."

While sustainability is core to the company's ethos, many of the groups it has decided to partner with have come to it through a combination of happenstance, chance and luck.

A meeting with The Prince of Wales was the spark needed to help push nettle further into G-Star's lines, after being invited to present its nettle fibre initiative at an environmental show in the gardens of Clarence House. This, says Ray, put a spotlight on the initiative within the company, as Prince Charles' interest added "gravitas".

Again, it was chance that led the company to nettle, Ray says, describing how some of G-Star's sourcing team were put in touch with a Dutch nettle farmer.

"It seemed quite interesting, because they were farming nettle primarily as a cotton alternative in countries where you haven't got a lot of sunshine, where it rains a lot and you've not got the right conditions for growing cotton. They were developing this, and we thought it would be a good idea to synch up with them."

G-Star joined the United Nation's Millennium Development Campaign when actor Alan Cumming, a UN ambassador, suggested it after one of the brand's fashion shows. The group is working to improve social conditions in the communities around the factories it sources from, with educational and enterprise programmes in China and India; aims that are aligned with the UN Millennium Development Goals.

Supplier relationships
Ray says the group's long term relationship with its suppliers means they buy into the denim brand's standards.

"Half of our volume is made with suppliers that have been working with us for ten years or more, so it means that we can incorporate our standards into those factories because they [already] share our values and norms.

These strong relationships mean that both suppliers and G-Star can work together to implement change on a longer term basis - for instance looking at chemicals, discharges and safety standards.

For example, Ray highlights its successful Lexicon Denim styles, which are made using innovative dyeing and finishing processes that use less water (up to 95%), energy and chemicals than traditionally produced denim. 

The group is also taking away the more hazardous chemicals and processes used in the dyeing and finishing processes - for example, using laser treatments and manual brushing to age its denim.

G-Star's focus on sustainability and phasing out harmful chemicals and processes is having a positive impact on products too.

Speaking about the shift from sandblasting to laser finishes and manual brushing, Ray says: "If I think back 20 years ago, the finishes always looked a bit artificial. Today's more modern approach looks more like natural ageing."

Modernity and innovation are key components of G-Star's ethos, across design, fibre use, manufacturing through to retail.

Ray attributes this to the company's relative youth compared to many of the other denim giants within the industry.

"Our group of designers are more focused on new ways and new technologies rather than the old ways of the denim business. [We don't have] 100 years of heritage with factories, we don't own any factories, we're 25 years old in 2014 - and 25 years is not a lot.

"Ours is more a homage to denim culture, but focusing on producing something very modern, rather than tying into tradition, doing something because you've always done it.

"This means that culturally, inside the DNA of the brand, it encourages designers to push the boundaries of denim."