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How the Denim Deal is Making Recycling the New Industry Standard

From homegrown brands like Scotch & Soda and Kings of Indigo, to a roster of international mills opening satellite offices, the city of Amsterdam has emerged as a global hub for the denim industry in recent years. And now, with the introduction of the Denim Deal, it’s a region driving significant change in the industry.

Last fall, the City of Amsterdam, the Amsterdam Economic Board, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management and the Municipalities of Haarlem and the Zaanstad, in partnership with denim brands, committed to the Denim Deal, a three-year sustainable denim initiative. Signatories of the deal commit to a new standard of using at least 5 percent recycled fibers in all denim products, and producing at least 3 million pairs of jeans with a minimum of 20 percent post-consumer recycled (PCR) content. According to James Veenhoff, founder of House of Denim, a foundation that promotes sustainable innovation, and co-initiator of the Denim Deal, the idea is to make recycling the new industry standard.

“For a long time, [House of Denim co-founder Mariette Hoitink] and I have been intrigued why post-consumer recycling, with its high potential for savings in water and emissions, never really caught on,” he said. After a series of related conversations with individuals throughout the denim supply chain, “an idea emerged,” he added. “Everybody seemed to want and believe the same thing, but needed the other steps in the chain to make a move.”

One of the major steps he was referring to was a textile recycling system that was both efficient and scalable. When Dutch textile experts developed Fibersort, an automated sorting machine, Veenhoff said “the game changed.”

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Experts give a status update on the Amsterdam Denim Deal led by public and private organizations committed to circular design.
Sorting process Courtesy

The machine’s ability to sift through some 900 kilograms (1,980 pounds) of post-consumer textiles per hour and separate according to color, fiber and construction is exactly what was needed to initiate real change.

“This makes collaboration between textile ‘producing’ countries and textile ‘consuming’ countries possible,” he said. “We can finally close the loop and make our linear industry circular.”

The deal became a reality during a meeting with The Netherlands’ Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure and Innovation. To date, 30 denim brands, including Scotch & Soda, Mud Jeans and Kings of Indigo, are a part of the deal, with new companies continuously joining.

The City of Amsterdam is ensuring goals are met through a “steering committee” led by representatives from each part of the denim making process. Imogen Nulty, Scotch & Soda’s director of denim and committee member, outlined the steps organizers are taking to make sure the initiative stays on track. The first step is to record each brand’s current figures in terms of recycled cotton. The next is to meet regularly to share wins and failures across the supply chain and brainstorm potential new projects. At the end of each year, a third party will calculate the total achievements and determine appropriate next steps.

“We are committed to making a positive impact, which is why we’re part of a forward-thinking denim community here in Amsterdam,” she said. “And that community and spirit is at the heart of the Denim Deal.”

In addition to the deal’s requirements, Scotch & Soda is committed to furthering its own aggressive targets. Currently, 41 percent of the brand’s styles feature 20 percent recycled material. By 2024, it aims to increase its offering to 70 percent. Similarly, Mud Jeans already produces denim featuring 20-40 percent PCR cotton. According to Laura Vicaria, Mud Jeans’ corporate social responsibility manager, the goal for 2023 is to have 90 percent of products feature between 20-40 percent PCR cotton. It’s also committed to achieving its Road to 100 initiative, in which it aims to produce a denim fabric made from 100 percent PCR.

But in the age of greenwashing, how can anyone be sure that the items they’re using are truly made of recycled materials? Turns out, there’s technology for that.

Aware, a tracer and blockchain technology from Dutch company The Movement, can distinguish false material from genuinely sustainable fabric with a simple scan. Makers of the technology partnered with the Denim Deal in March 2021 to help drive the initiative and verify that companies are making a real impact.

“Working together with international leaders within the denim supply chain to accelerate towards a circular fashion system gives us the opportunity to create an even greater impact,” said Koen Warmerdam, Aware’s brand director. “[Our technology can] increase the use of traceable recycled materials, validate environmental impact reduction claims and eliminate greenwashing at the same time.”

Scaling the initiative will be largely dependent on other governments.

“I believe that [government] involvement is what has motivated so many key players to form part of this initiative,” Vicaria said. “They have been proactive about understanding the bottle neck issues, and very verbal about being there to support us. I believe they will play a key role in driving policy-related change.”

The City of Amsterdam is actively promoting the project in media and is helping to identify partners and subsidies. It also plans to support the recycling stage of the process by collecting old textiles from residents and ensuring as many people as possible recycle their denim correctly.

“We truly believe that as many companies as possible should join and sign the Denim Deal,” Nulty said. “We hope that our collaboration inspires other entities across the world so we can make a bigger, global impact together.”