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Are Denim-Recycling Initiatives Green or Greenwashing?

Denim recycling isn’t an issue that would strike most people as being controversial. Who wants to see more textiles destined for the dump? And surely with all that Marie Kondo-ing going around, all those joyless jeans must go somewhere.

And indeed, schemes such as Cotton Incorporated’s Blue Jeans Go Green initiative—the largest and most successful of them all—unquestionably have done a world of good.

Since 2006, the year the U.S. trade group began working with Arizona’s Bonded Logic to turn ditched dungarees into natural-fiber housing insulation, Cotton Inc. has amassed 2.5 million pieces of denim, diverted more than 1,230 tons of garment waste from the landfill and produced more than 4.8 million square feet of denim insulation, a portion of which it distributes to affiliates of Habitat for Humanity to build homes for families in need.

The largesse is a deeply appreciated one, Helen Dosta, director of development at Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles, told Rivet over email.

“Since 2013, Cotton Inc. has generously donated more than $188,700 of insulation made from recycled jeans and have contributed nearly 630 volunteer hours to helping hardworking low-income individuals and families in the Greater Los Angeles area,” she said. “We look forward to working with Cotton Inc. for many years to come.”

Blue Jeans Go Green accepts used denim year-round through its mail-in program, but it also partners with retailers nationwide, such as American Eagle, Guess, Madewell, Levi Strauss and Rag & Bone, to set up collection bins in-store. It’s a tack that extends the initiative’s reach and doubles down on publicity, which, in turn, funnels more jeans into the pipeline. Participating brands might reward their customers’ donations with discounts or coupons for a new pair of high-rise, low-slung, relaxed or skinny jeans. And so the cycle continues.

Still, not everyone is a fan of the program. Some critics take issue with the framing of recycling as unwanted denim’s first—and perhaps only—recourse, and an environmentally virtuous one even though the program doesn’t distinguish the still-wearable from the unwearable.

One of them is Rachel Kibbe, co-founder and director of partnerships at Helpsy, the largest clothing-collection company in the Northeast United States. Denim, she told Rivet, is a tough, long-lasting textile, something that hardly should be surprising considering its workwear origins.

Helpsy has processed a lot of denim in its time. Overcome by curiosity, Kibbe once peeked into the collection containers it set up at 33 Bloomingdale’s nationwide during Denim Days. (The for-benefit company doesn’t do this as a rule out of respect to its sorters and pickers, who purchase bales from Helpsy sight unseen.) “All of the jeans were in perfect condition,” she said. “Jeans just don’t wear out.”

Shredding “perfectly good denim” into insulation, an act that harnesses a wider swath of resources than simply passing it on, should be a last resort, not the first impulse, Kibbe said. Preaching anything else, she expressed, is almost tantamount to greenwashing or burning unsold inventory.

Plus, Kibbe is happy to trade Cotton Inc.’s undamaged jeans for versions that are in unsalvageable condition. This will keep the former at their “highest and best use” by finding them new homes, whether through donation—à la Aéropostale and DoSomething.org’s annual “Teens for Jeans” drives, which benefit homeless youths—or resale.

“We can go to our sorters—and our sorters sort through the majority of used clothes in the United States, millions and millions and millions of pounds a year—and we can go to them and we can buy back whatever brands that a brand want for resale,” Kibbe said. “And that’s the most efficient way, it’s the least amount of CO₂, it’s the cheapest way to get items back and it also keeps our sorters in business.”

Resale is fast becoming a booming industry. According to ThredUp’s 2019 resale report, the secondhand-apparel market is poised to more than double in value from $24 billion today to $51 billion in 2023. The tides of opinion are shifting, too. Roughly 40 percent of consumers now consider the resale value of an item before buying it, according to a recent GlobalData survey.

Keeping clothing in protracted rotation is also better for the planet. Britain’s Waste & Resources Action Program, for instance, estimates that extending the life of a garment by just three months can lead to a 5 percent to 10 percent reduction in its carbon, waste and water footprints.

Brands and retailers, eager to burnish their sustainability bona fides, might take note. “We believe the more brands that get involved in apparel reuse, the better it is for the consumer and the planet,” said a spokesperson from ThredUp, which bills itself as the world’s largest online secondhand and consignment store.

Tara Vincente Porter, owner of Oregon City’s Denim Salvage, understands better than most the value of keeping jeans in circulation. The KonMari movement has buoyed her denim-resale business, but she also knows that crotch blowouts, busted hardware and other wardrobe malfunctions are as abundant as the infrastructure to deal with them is lacking.

“Recycling” clothing, she observed, isn’t as easy as dumping aluminum cans or plastic bottles on the curb. Jeans are heavy items, weighing anywhere from three to five pounds apiece—“and that’s on the low end,” she said.

The reverse logistics of corralling old jeans is further complicated by the fact that people tend to unload several pairs at a time.

“If you don’t have a place where you can bring those to recycle them on a larger volume scale, then the chances of you even attempting to participate [become slim],” Vincente Porter said. Sending clothes off to be resold or repurposed “works really great only when we either aren’t paying for it or we get money back,” she added.

No one solution, she stressed, can stand on its own merit. It takes “a system.” When clients bring in jeans she doesn’t think she can sell, for instance, she offers to send them to a local women’s shelter.

“I believe that the shredding of the denim can be a part of a dynamic solution after they’ve been worn the bejeezus out of,” Vincente Porter said. “If it’s a piece that someone can’t wear, then yeah, we need to do something else with it and not just dump it in the landfill.”

Even damaged pairs might have one last shot before they hit that great denim warehouse in the sky, however. Gem City Apron, a nascent company from Dayton, Ohio, is working with Helpsy to do precisely that.

“We have our first run of aprons almost ready to go,” said Kristen Prinzo, who co-founded the company to give discarded denim a second life. Happily for Helpsy, Gem City Apron seeks out men’s jeans, size 40 and up, which are slow movers in most resale channels—overseas one, in particular. She says she’s hoping to sell them to coffeehouses, small restaurants, flower shops and other independent establishments.

Imperfections in the fabric are not just welcome, they’re embraced as part of its character. “Each apron is unique,” explained Jami Briggs, Prinzo’s sister and head of product development. “We have some that have little holes in them or stains that show that [its previous owner] was a painter.”

But even the most judicious repurposer generates waste. Gem City Apron passes off its scraps to a designer friend who upcycles them into pillowcases and other home accessories, but it may need to find additional outlets if operations continue to grow.

“We are trying to make sure we’re not essentially creating a green product that uses more resources,” Briggs said. “We want to keep resources down to a minimum.”

Perhaps American brands can borrow a page from their European cousins. Both Sweden’s Nudie Jeans and Amsterdam’s Mud Jeans have buy-back programs that prepare jeans for either reuse or recycling, depending on their condition.

Cotton Inc., for its part, says it has “no time or interest” to disparage anyone’s choices. It will stay on its chosen route.

“We’re trying to make wins for people and the environment,” said Andrea Samber, director of consumer marketing, strategic alliances. “Consumers can decide for themselves how to dispose of their unwanted apparel, and which programs they choose to support.”

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