Denim is a fabric loved the world over. Recognized as one of the most ubiquitous items of clothing, jeans are universally worn by all ages, genders, and demographics in all the shapes and styles that have emerged across the items storied history. It’s the undisputed champion of garments.
Denim is a fabric loved the world over. Recognised as one of the most ubiquitous items of clothing, jeans are universally worn by all ages, genders and demographics in all the shapes and styles that have emerged across the items storied history. It’s the undisputed champion of garments. In the past however, the denim industry has developed a notoriously bad reputation for its harmful practises throughout the supply chain that consumes vast amounts of water, insecticides, pesticides, and energy as well as uses harmful chemicals in the dying/finishing processes. In a bid to reinvent denim's dirty image, the denim industry has rallied together over the past year to re-engineer jeans within the framework of an emergent circular economy. Shifting away from the linear model of take, make, dispose, this new closed loop vision of the denim supply chain aims to reduce climate impact and material waste, and achieve a maximum value at every stage of the product's life cycle through re-make, re-use or re-sale models. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is responsible for leading this change and helping brands achieve circularity at scale through its New Textile Economy. This month, Scandinavian retail giant H&M and its subsidiary label Weekday delivered the first collection of denim created in line with the guidelines. Following the core principles, the resulting redesigned products, including jeans and jackets, were created to withstand a minimum of 30 home laundries, be free of hazardous chemicals and comprised of 98 percent cellulose fibers, with metal rivets excluded or reduced for ease in recycling. For example, Weekday’s unisex jean and jacket are 100% recyclable and 100% biodegradable thanks to design features like removable buttons, bar tacks that replace rivets and stitching made from Tencel. The denim itself is crafted from a blend of organic and recycled cotton (post-consumer waste) using renewable energy and water recycling technologies. “For us, this isn’t a one-off, we are now looking at how we can be more efficient and more responsible within all our design practises” says Per Axen, responsible denim designer at Weekday. H&M designer, Jon Loman agrees; “Sustainability and circularity should be seen as the parameters that designers move within. It’s a new set of borders and limitations, if you like. Being a designer is also about finding new opportunities and connecting more with the technical side of how a pair of jeans are made.” Brands like H&M and Weekday are relying on the innovations from vendors further up the supply chain to deliver on their targets. Turkish denim mill Calik is one of the leading manufacturers helping brands realise circularity at scale via fabric developments that adhere to circularity guidelines. Ahead of Kingpins Live in October, the mill launched its E-Denim, a fabric which uses special spinning techniques at the yarn stage that has created one of the most sophisticated recycled fabrics on the market. Typically, as the amount of recycled fiber increases in ring yarn production, there is a decrease in ring yarn product quality. In order to keep the quality and recycled material content high, Calik uses a big part of recycled yarn as the core with its uniquely developed production technology, which also provides traceability for all the stakeholders. This step is followed by wrapping the core yarn with recycled cotton. In addition to this, Calik adds recycled Tencel to the yarn and achieves the maximum amount of recycled content that can be technically made in ring spinning. Original jeans brand Levi’s has also been looking to fibre innovation to push its sustainable efforts towards the circular economy. During the summer, Levi’s unveiled its most sustainable denim ever, using a mixture of organic cotton and Circulose, a material made from worn-out jeans. Levi’s has guaranteed that all parts of the jeans including trims and threads meet the brand’s recycling specifications, meaning that the sustainable jeans can once again be recycled again. To coincide with its sustainable efforts Levi’s also launched its own recommerce and buyback program, Levi’s Secondhand. The initiative marks a significant turning point, both for Levi’s and the fashion industry as a whole. Levi’s is the first denim brand of its size to create a buyback program like this and effectively take responsibility for the full “life cycle” of its garments. It’s an example of true circularity. Aside from reducing impact by keeping existing products in the loop, the brand cites the growing interest in second hand amongst Gen-Z as being the main reason for launching the initiative. As chief marketing officer Jen Sey points out, nearly 60% of Gen Z consumers already buy secondhand clothes. “They love the hunt, they love finding a really unique item, and it makes it even better that it’s a sustainable choice,” she explained in a press release. “Buying a used pair of Levi’s saves approximately 80% of the CO2 emissions, and 1.5 pounds of waste, compared to buying a new pair. As we scale this, that will really start adding up.” This shift in consumer attitudes is already being felt across retail. London department store Selfridges recently launched Project Earth, a new shopping experience that encourages and educates consumers to shop more responsibly. The project was rolled out across the entire store, redecorating windows and revamping the floors with initiatives promoting resale, rental, refill and repair. Selfridges isn’t the first store to experiment with these new retail models. Over in the US, Nordstrom became the latest retailer to dabble in the burgeoning resale market. Debuting at its New York flagship, Nordstrom’s “See You Tomorrow” store offered shoppers secondhand pieces from brands like Burberry, Thom Browne, Isabel Marant, Off-White and Adidas. In a recent Vogue article on secondhand, writer Emily Farra highlighted that globally consumers “miss out” on $460 billion of value a year by throwing away clothes that could be worn by someone else. By extending a garment’s life by just nine months can reduce its carbon, waste, and water footprint by 20 to 30%. When applying that logic to denim, a vintage jean from the ’90s might have a footprint close to zero. The more pressing issue that should encourage fashion brands to action change is to slow down the global rising temperature. If the apparel industry continues to expand at its current rate—last year, the Global Fashion Agenda estimated it would grow 81% by 2030, though the number could be slightly lower due to the pandemic—fashion will use 26% of the world’s budget for staying within a two-degree rise in temperature by 2050. The climate disasters alone that have occurred this alone should be proof that fashion needs to do better. Shopping second hand is one to help educate consumers to shop better, but what the industry truly needs is systematic shifts in the way clothes are made, from the materials grown through to the way garments are designed. The denim industry has come a long way. Technological advancements continue to decrease its impact, but the next steps require the industry to adopt a more circular model. It is important to remember that true circularity requires thinking beyond decreasing the impact and considering how design, durability, and recycling can play a role in circularity.