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For Gap, Small Steps Mean Large Rewards in Circular Denim Design

Circular design holds just as much value for a business as it does for the environment.

In a new webinar series hosted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), fashion and sustainability experts discussed the need for industry-wide adoption of a circular fashion model, highlighting the astronomical amount of waste currently plaguing the industry.

While clothing production has doubled between the years 2000 and 2015, the number of times consumers wear a piece of clothing has decreased by 40 percent, according to Francois Souchet, EMF’s Make Fashion Circular lead.

“We wear things less and less, and we make more and more,” he said. “And actually, what that results in is a massive missed opportunity for the fashion industry.”

Rather than producing new clothing that will ultimately end up in a landfill, the EMF is dedicated to unifying the fashion industry around recycling waste and designing with the end of life in mind. In 2019, it established guidelines for responsible denim production with its Jeans Redesign project. To date, the initiative has brought together 50 organizations, which account for 650,000 jeans set to these standards by May 2021.

Gap Inc., the parent company of Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic, was one of the major corporations that signed onto the project. Gap’s director of denim research and design Rebecca Golden noted that the company uses 110 million yards of denim fabric each year across all brands—making it crucial that it abides by responsible production methods.

Even just incorporating 5 percent of post-consumer cotton into its Holiday 2019 denim collection translated to 91,000 pounds of recycled cotton, Golden said. Gap made 975,000 pairs of jeans according to those standards.

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At scale, even small steps toward circular fashion can make a large impact.

But other panelists noted that it’s often not easy for larger corporations to quickly adopt circular practices.

Stuart Ahlum, co-founder of circular footwear brand Thousand Fell, acknowledged the importance of large footwear companies beginning to talk about circularity—but that long-term material commitments and budget restrictions for material innovation will likely delay their adoption.

“Bigger companies are heading in that direction, but it’s going to take 5-15 years,” said Ahlum. While finances may not seem like an issue for large corporations, switching the production methods for millions of pairs of shoes can quickly surge costs, he added. “Oftentimes the first cut is the material innovation.”

Despite the challenges of being a large company, Gap Inc. continues to expand its circular practices and keep the concept in mind as it designs for 2021. While Golden’s questions for suppliers used to address things like color, weight and cost, they now point to environmental concerns.

“Now we sit down at the table with our suppliers and we say, ‘what’s good about it, what are we saving, does it save water, can we add post-consumer waste cotton into it?’” she said. “And we’ll make it more sustainable and more circular. It’s changed dramatically.”