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Circular Catalyst: How Circular-Focused HNST Lives Up to its Ethical Name

HNST (pronounced honest) is living up to its name with transparent, low-impact denim.

Circularity has been part of HNST from the start, but the company is not resting on its sustainability laurels. In 2017, the brand prepared for its first collection by partnering with secondhand clothing and textile collectors De Collectie and Opnieuw&Co to set up 80 spots throughout the Flanders region of Belgium where consumers could drop off their pre-worn denim. The resulting 6,000 pairs gathered were then processed, and jeans that were not eligible for resale in their current state became the raw material for HNST’s debut denim line.

The company now works with European Spinning Group to combine recycled denim with new cotton and Tencel to create jeans that are less impactful. From there, the sustainable production continues in Europe as the blend is sent to an Italian weaving mill and a manufacturer in Portugal.

“The textile industry is dominated by big volumes and large players,” said Lander Desmedt, CEO and co-founder of HNST. “In this playing field it has been challenging to find manufacturing partners that are willing to produce small quantities and engage in a daring and innovative journey of trial and error. Following our intrinsic motivation has allowed us to find partners that believe in our story and are willing to make exceptions on these fronts.”

HNST’s jeans already have a high concentration of recycled denim, up to 56 percent, but the company is working to raise that figure. The brand is creating jeans that can be more easily recycled than their traditionally made counterparts. Since processing blended textiles can be a challenge, HNST uses only cellulosic materials in its jeans, including natural sewing thread and back patches made of jacron, a durable paper material that resembles leather. Trims also matter, so the brand uses embroidered rivets and removable buttons that can be unscrewed at the end of life. Further scaling back on trims, HNST forgoes interior labels in favor of printing product information directly on the inside pockets with Cradle to Cradle certified ink.

“The use of metal trims and polyester labels is resulting in material losses of up to 30 percent in most denim recycling chains, since the upper part of the jeans containing all hard parts and labels is being cut off,” Desmedt said.

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Beyond its production process, HNST thinks about how its denim is used by consumers, including the impact of laundering jeans. Currently, the company doesn’t use elastane or other stretch fibers, since they leech microplastics into water during the wash cycle. HNST is working to develop a stretch denim that does not contain synthetics.

Since starting out, HNST has saved 17 tons of old jeans from being incinerated. And it’s not stopping with denim. The company plans to expand into other categories, which will also be produced under the same circular methods.

“When building a circular product, it is essential to start from the waste and work your way up the value chain. Today the world is being flooded with new materials that are marketed as recyclable,” Desmedt said. “These materials might be recyclable in theory, but in practice this often proves to be technologically or economically inefficient or even worst, impossible. The unrecyclable residue of products and materials it what we consider true waste, and for this purpose solutions must be found.”