A shrine to fashion in the heart of Amsterdam
G-Star RAW’s Rem Koolhaas designed headquarters are a mecca to fashion. A pantheon in the worship of clothes. Head through the formidable building’s entrance and the first thing you’ll see is jeans, shirts, shorts and skirts: hung on the walls, displayed as art and worn by the firm’s super-stylish employees. The ephemera of fashion dresses the futuristic building’s tables and desks like the accessories adorned by a line-up of catwalk models. Venture into the basement and you’ll find G-Star’s archive, a collection of more than 35,000 pieces, including everything from original clothing and workwear to submarine escape suits and classic denim jackets.
But it’s not while digging through this treasure trove of apparel that you’ll find G-Star’s most important product. Instead, the piece that symbolises the firm’s journey in the last decade or so sits at the end of its RAW for the Planet Journey exhibition. Walk past the pictures of the abandoned children that the denim firm’s GSRD Foundation has helped home and its range of EarthColors jeans that have been dyed using upcycled plant waste and you’ll find it, hung on a wall in this makeshift shrine to sustainability. This is the G-Star Elwood RFTPi jean, the most sustainable jeans G-Star has ever made.
How G-Star became one of the world's most sustainable denim companies
“For me, these jeans are my proudest achievement,” explains Frouke Bruinsma, G-Star’s sustainability & communications director, as she guides I amsterdam around the expansive Amsterdam headquarters. “They are the culmination of everything that we’ve done before, of everything we have learned over the years.”
G-Star’s journey has been a long and busy one. But the Dutch firm is a shining example of a company working in one of the most polluting industries in the world and doing everything it can to change it from within. A shining example of commitment to sustainability. It started around 2006 when G-Star implemented its first Supplier Code of Conduct, which set out the social and environmental standards it expected each factory it worked with to meet. “At that time, we were growing at a fast pace and realised that we needed to show our responsibility to our non-profit organsations,” explains Bruinsma. “In the Netherlands and Europe, there wasn’t much going on in terms of sustainability. We really had to go to the US to learn more about it.”
But it wasn’t until G-Star’s 2010 RAW Sustainable line that “our sustainable commercial product journey really started” explains Adriana Galijasevic, G-Star's denim & sustainability expert. Comprised of three sub-programmes, RAW Organic, RAW Nettle and RAW Recycled, the collection used recycled and organic materials. Two years later, G-Star applied its learnings from these collections to all its best sellers, meaning the impact on sustainable fibres went from 1% to 10% within a year. It was then inspired to set the goal of being 100% sustainable on its cotton by 2020, as cotton represents 80% of its business. “That was challenging in the beginning but in order for us to have an impact we needed to do it,” Galijasevic adds.
Since that time its commitment to sustainability has snowballed: G-Star has banned fur and angora, created the RAW for the Oceans collection from plastic waste reclaimed from the shorelines and oceans and developed sustainable dyes made from recycled plant waste. Even G-Star’s Rem Koolhaas designed Amsterdam headquarters, inspired by an aeroplane hangar, has several sustainable features, including a thermal-storage system and triple glazing. G-Star is also on track to meet its commitment to use only sustainable fabrics and have zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020.
A business model defined by sustainability and transparency
The model is simple. G-Star introduces a sustainable innovation as part of a capsule collection, learning best practices and ensuring its processes are as green as possible. The team then take what they have learned and roll it out throughout their other product lines. Often it works alongside partners – Plastic Soup, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the ZDHC Foundation and Fashion Positive - that can offer expertise on how to be as efficient as possible. Along all these stages, G-Star tries to be as transparent as possible about what it does and is doing – including allowing customers to see exactly where products have been made and learn more about the factories involved in producing garments. In fact, G-Star also offers instructions to customers on the best way to care for and recycle their jeans.
One important point that G-Star is keen to make is that consumers don’t pay more for the investment, instead it and its partners absorb the costs. “Of course, there’s a cost when you innovate,” says Bruinsma, “but we keep the cost neutral for the customer.” Of course, for any company to be so dedicated to sustainability is admirable, but after been founded in Amsterdam in 1989, G-Star is still rapidly expanding and has more than 5,400 points of sale in 58 countries and over 400 G-Star stores worldwide.
Creating the most sustainable jeans ever
Spending time with Bruinsma and Galijasevic is a joy. The pair personify G-Star’s passion for protecting the planet, and clearly love what they do. And their proudest achievement is G-Star’s Most Sustainable Jeans Ever. “The jeans are the culmination of so much work,” explains Galijasevic. “They represent our ethos. To make them, we created the cleanest indigo technology ever alongside textile dyeing company Dystar and denim manufacturer Artistic Milliners. They also feature eco-finished metal buttons and a washing process where 98% of the water used is recycled and the rest evaporates, leaving no water to be discharged into the local environment."
To test just how sustainable the jeans are, G-Star asked for the denim fabric used to make them to be tested by the most rigorous test available – at the non-for-profit Cradle To Cradle Products Innovation Institute, the only certification designed for circular product economy. After testing, the fabric was awarded a coveted Gold-level certification, the world’s first-ever gold standard awarded to a denim fabric.
How the future of fashion can go green
Not content with being a leader in sustainability, G-Star also shares its knowledge to help the wider-industry to be as green as possible. One way in which it does this is by sharing its innovations via Cradle to Cradle's Fashion Positive Materials Library, a database of their certified materials which is available online. “What we’re trying to do is to start a challenge with our competitors to do better and be more sustainable,” Bruinsma explains in a meeting room in the heart of G-Star’s headquarters, as designers cut out samples on tables just metres from where we are sat. “That’s a nice thing, as it means we’re all working towards the greater good. What’s great is that now many brands are working together. We can’t do it by ourselves.”
Despite its pioneering successes in sustainability, both Bruinsma and Galijasevic are keen to emphasise that G-Star’s team are always learning and looking to improve. “We’re always pushing the boundaries and working on improvements to be even better than we are.” That means working on a Cradle To Cradle Gold level certification for a range of materials, so they can use each individual element to make the greenest product possible.
“What we always want to do is create a positive impact,” explains Bruinsma. “We focused first on our value chain and our material. We have also embedded circularity and transparency into our sustainability strategy. It has taken us around 10 years to reach this masterpiece,” she says as she points to the jeans on the wall, “and we were only able to do that as we had done all the other work." In just over a decade G-Star have become one of the world's biggest denim brands that is completely dedicated to working sustainably, and we can't help feel that if we were to return in 10 years time, we would find them in much the same state, working together to refine their methods in their temple to trends and helping to make the world a better place.