Why the Future of Denim Will Be About Making New Jeans Out of Old Ones
In the sustainable fashion conversation, cotton gets a pretty bad rap. It’s collectively considered one of the “worst offenders” as far as its environmental impact, mostly due to the human rights abuses surrounding it to its own environmental harms. Just the farming of cotton depletes increasingly scarce water supplies and spreads pesticide residue.
In the sustainable fashion conversation, cotton gets a pretty bad rap. It’s collectively considered one of the “worst offenders” as far as its environmental impact, mostly due to the human rights abuses surrounding it to its own environmental harms. Just the farming of cotton depletes increasingly scarce water supplies and spreads pesticide residue. The half-dried-up Aral Sea has been a public relations nightmare for the industry. So have child labor and farmer suicides in India. Forced Uighur labor in China is just the latest cotton indignity. Not surprisingly, fashion brands would rather not deal with cotton's PR problem and its fluctuating costs, which is why there has been a rise of polyester and rayon. One of the other ways brands are getting around the problem of sourcing virgin cotton is via recycling. Recycled cotton is not a new concept to the apparel market, but as manufacturers, brands, and retailers continue to evaluate their supply chain footprint, the interest in recycled cotton has grown. One of the biggest benefits of using reclaimed materials is that it prevents additional textile waste and requires far fewer resources than conventional or organic cotton. Made-By, a European fashion not-for-profit that has partnered with the Alliance for Responsible Denim, rated recycled cotton more highly than even organic cotton in its environmental benchmark for fibers. Besides requiring less energy, water and land, as well as fewer chemicals than its virgin counterpart, recycled cotton also generates fewer greenhouse-gas emissions during production. Additionally using recycled textiles tackles an additional problem: the volume of unwanted clothing that winds up in landfills. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which works to foster sustainability, clothing production globally roughly doubled from 2000 to 2015. During the same period, the number of times a garment was worn declined by 36 percent. All told, “the equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second,” their report found. Over roughly the same period, according to the World Economic Forum, 60 percent more garments were purchased, but consumers kept them for only half as long. Denim is a prime material for recycling due to the high cotton content, with feasible technologies existing today to recycle it to high quality levels and feed it back in at the beginning of the product creation stage - fibre preparation. The industry has already been making strides to phase out virgin ingredients like cotton and replace it with renewable, regenerative inputs through platforms like The Jeans Redesign project which has placed recycling as part of its key design principles. For all of the benefits of natural and organic cotton, hemp, linen, rayon, and so on, experts are saying that it’s almost always better to use what already exists. “Replacing 20 percent of the cotton in denim with fibers from post-consumer sources, can save up to 500 liters per garment,” according to Hélène Smits, initiator and lead of the Circle Textiles program at Circle Economy. “There’s a lot of innovation in the dyeing process and in the finishing process, which is great,” she explained in an interview with Sourcing Journal. “But those water and chemical savings are only a small percentage of the savings you get by using recycled material.” Denim is widely recognised as a thirsty category, in particular the water intensive processes required at the cotton growing stage, which according to Levi’s life-cycle assessment can consume about 2,570 liters of water per pair of jeans. That’s seven times more than fabric production, cutting, sewing, and finishing combined. Taking action from its learnings, Levi’s has been working to reduce its environmental impact and move towards circularity through its Wellthread platform. This year, the brand announced its most sustainably designed collection to date, a pair of jeans made of 20% recycled denim, 20% sustainably sourced viscose and 60% organic cotton. The brand claims the recycled denim reduces its environmental footprint through less water, less carbon dioxide and fewer chemicals. “Every part of the jean, from the red tab to the thread, is carefully calibrated to maximize their potential for a second life,” says our senior innovation designer Una Murphy. One of the biggest obstacles brands like Levi’s are facing with recycled cotton is the cap on how much recycled cotton they can use. Typically it's only possible to have a maximum 20 percent of the garment in post consumer recycled cotton due the shortening of fibre lengths during the shredding process. When the fibres staple length reduces it weakens the integrity of the recycled fabric, which is why mills have to bolster the new fabric with stronger components, like viscose and organic cotton in the case of Levi’s. Dutch denim fanatic and founder of Mud Jeans, Bert van Son has been testing the limitations of recycled cotton for close to a decade. With an unwavering commitment to circularity and an ambitious target to produce denim made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled cotton, van Son together with his team, is furthering the brands sustainable efforts with a new collection. This year, they introduced 40% post-consumer recycled cotton into their jeans, which they claim is the highest percentage out there. “Recycled post-consumer denim is our favourite material as it allows us to lower our use of virgin materials and in so doing, save water, energy and protect biodiversity,” reads a brand statement on its website. “The aim to make our jeans 100% from postconsumer recycled cotton.” Dutch denim giant Tommy Jeans, picked Mud Jeans at the post for the world’s first denim made from 100 percent recycled pre-consumer cotton waste. The collection, which debuted in March 2020 was created from a blend of scraps from the apparel industry’s factory floors and the hotel industry’s bed linens. Even the stitching and trimmings are made of recycled materials, with thread coming from recycled PET plastic bottles, canvas patches made with 100 percent recycled polyester and buttons and rivets made from recycled metal. This year, Calik Denim extends their reach into circular design with its brand new concept RE/J. The 100% recycled concept that consists of post and pre-consumer waste, is produced by OE spinning method. Unlike 100% recycled fabrics in the industry, Calik states that RE/J stands out with its vintage, authentic denim looks and production method with desired elasticities. The concept also features value-added fibers such as ECOLycra and Reprieve PES and is compatible with conscious technologies such as Dyepro.’ The new RE/J concept could be seen as an extension of Calik Denim’s E Denim concept, which was created with circularity in mind. Speaking on the product Calik Denim says “we can increase the recycled content percentage up to 50% with our E Denim. The industry average for recycled content is currently around 20%. Going above this percentage may create variety of problems in the fabric such as decreased durability and coloring issues.” In the past one of the challenges standing in recycling’s way has been blended materials. Processing post-consumer clothing that has more than a single fiber type is complicated and as a result, textile waste is often sent to landfills. Now companies like Infinited Fibre are disrupting the market further with more efficient ways to recycle cotton clothing. Rather than relying on mechanical recycling this innovation uses chemical recycling from 100 percent textile waste yet claims to look and feel like virgin cotton or viscose. One of the benefits of Infinna is that it is biodegradable and clothes made with it can be recycled again in the same process together with other textile waste like paper or carboard. It’s created out of cellulose, the building block of all plants. Any non-cellulosic materials in the raw material – like polyester, elastane and dyes – are removed in Infinited Fiber Company’s process. In February this year, H&M brand Weekday made Infinited Fiber available to consumers for the first time in a limited collection of jeans. Just 64 pairs were made with 50 percent Infinna and 50 percent organic cotton in what Infinited Fiber Company described as a significant milestone. “Lots of different garments have been created with Infinna in the past to demonstrate how our regenerated textile fiber works in different fabric applications from T-shirts, to hoodies to dress shirts to jeans. But these are the first garments that are available for anyone out there to purchase. And that’s exciting!” says Infinited Fiber Company’s Key Account Director Kirsi Terho. The jeans come in Weekday’s favorite fit for women, Rowe. Just like all the other Rowe jeans, they are priced at 500 Swedish krona (around 50 euros), underlining the philosophy that sustainability shouldn’t be exclusive and must become mainstream for maximum impact. The efforts made by Weekday speak to the growing demand for recycled goods amongst consumers in the market. In the past few years alone, recycled denim has gone from a niche product category to a sought-after keyword as demand for conscious clothing hits new highs. Cotton Incorporated’s Lifestyle Monitor™ research shows that consumers are seeking out recycled materials, but “recycled” does not necessarily equate to “sustainable” in a consumers’ mind. Research shows that 24% of consumers are willing to pay more for clothing that is labeled as “recycled” and 32% of consumers who plan on purchasing clothing or will look for “recycled” clothing. Currently, consumers place more value in clothing or products labeled as “100% cotton,” “natural,” or “environmentally-friendly” so there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in order to better promote benefits of recycled denim and educate consumers on why they should invest in it.