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Circular Catalyst: Mud Jeans Maps out Path to Produce 100% Recycled Jeans

When Mud Jeans set out to change the fashion industry eight years ago, denim’s position as an ecological offender made it a prime target. Jeans are highly resource-heavy garments, consuming 1,850 gallons of water for just one pair. Beyond tackling water use, Mud considered every aspect of how jeans are produced to make denim more of a positive force, from removing chemicals to ensuring workers receive fair wages.

“There’s a lot of things that go wrong from the raw cotton until it’s in your cupboard. So, we decided to make jeans in a better way,” said Bert van Son, CEO of Mud Jeans.

Mud’s idea of responsibility also extended to its jeans’ end of life, translating into the use of recycled denim fabric to reduce the environmental cost of its raw materials. Now, almost a decade into the brand’s journey, it is ramping up its circular commitment with a project to create jeans out of 100 percent post-consumer recycled denim.

Currently, Mud uses a mix of mechanically recycled denim and virgin organic cotton in its collections. The shredding process shortens fibers, necessitating the addition of non-recycled cotton to offer better material strength. Because of this, the highest recycled content that has been available from Mud to-date is 40 percent. For jeans with elastane for stretch, the recycled cotton content needs to be capped at 23 percent to maintain quality standards.

As it sets its sights on fully recycled jeans, Mud is going beyond the limits of what can be achieved with mechanically processed fibers by adding chemically recycled denim to the mix. Fibers are broken down into pulp and then turned into fibers. The two resulting materials from the different recycling processes are then woven together in equal parts to create longer, stronger fibers that look like rough denim rather than viscose.

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Mud originally planned to launch its 100 percent recycled jeans in 2020, but that timeline has been delayed due to Covid. Most recently, the company and its partners Saxion University in Holland, fiber recycling firm Recover and nonprofit Circular Economy have developed a swatch that is 30 square centimeters in a laboratory. The fabric is currently being tested, and it has already passed for aspects such as colorfastness. The next step is getting funding to scale up the fabric and produce a 10,000-yard run to make jeans out of the material for further assessments.

One element that has made a big difference in the project so far is funding from the Dutch government. And the Netherlands’ support of circularity is more than financial. Holland has a program in place to establish a circular economy in the nation by 2050 and achieve a 50 percent reduction in its raw material consumption by 2030. This has helped organically raise consumer interest in companies such as Mud.

“The government is really trying to implement rules and laws to push recycling, not only in textiles but in other fields,” said Van Son. “So, we feel that we as a company are at the heart of this whole development and are profiting off this.”

Another aspect that has enabled Mud to scale up its denim recycling is its jean leasing program, which began in 2013. Customers can pay a monthly fee to borrow a pair of jeans. After the consumer is done wearing the jeans, Mud will take them back to ensure they get a second life.

This circular-minded approach has also translated to the company designing its jeans to be more recyclable by reducing the variety of inputs. This means fewer rivets, a printed back label instead of a leather one and cotton interior tags. Mud has also switched to a biodegradable indigo to avoid toxic chemicals.

“If you really want to change things, and change behavior and change your way of thinking about a company, you have to start at the beginning,” said Van Son. “And that’s how we started eight years ago. We said let’s try to make a pair of jeans, realizing that we know that one day we will get it back and we have to recycle it. So let’s try to make it as easy as possible.”