More than half a million pairs of circular jeans have entered the market since the launch of Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s (EMF) Jeans Redesign guidelines. Achieving this figure, however, hasn’t been a piece of cake for the denim supply chain.
The guidelines, co-developed in 2019 with representatives from brands, manufacturers, mills, recyclers, and academics, define a starting point for the industry to design and produce jeans in accordance with the principles of a circular economy. Centered on material health, durability, enduring design and recyclability, three design-led principles underpin Jeans Redesign: eliminate waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems.
Two years later, the common guidelines remain an ambitious yet effective way to scale circular fashion, but some criteria is consistently reported as being among the toughest requirements for participants to meet. Along with calling for more collaborative efforts and support from policymakers, a new report by EMF dives into the barriers, solutions and innovation gaps faced by the 72 brands, retailers, garment manufacturers, fabric mills and laundries signed up to the Jeans Redesign’s guidelines and definitions for a circular economy.
“The Jeans Redesign supports organizations to build the confidence to explore and learn about how to use circular economy principles to put products on the market,” said Laura Balmond, EMF’s Make Fashion Circular lead. “The collective challenges and solutions identified made it clear where investment and innovation are needed.”
Requirements are also changing. This month, the guidelines were updated to include a mandatory recycled content requirement that reflects the industry’s widespread use of post-consumer recycled content. EMF reports that more than half of Jeans Redesign participants already include recycled content in their fabrics and jeans.
The new requirement is a minimum of 5 percent recycled content on average by weight in the total fabric composition for fabric mills, or average by weight in the total textile composition of every garment for brands, retailers, and garment manufacturers. Recycled content should be validated with the Global Recycled Standard or the Recycled Claim Standard.
While 98 percent of participants have ensured a minimum of 98 percent cellulose-based fabrics (cotton, hemp, lyocell, modal and viscose) in their textile composition, most participants name finding cellulose-based fibers from regenerative sources as “incredibly challenging.”
Companies, however, are exploring projects that will provide future solutions. For example, EMF reported that BAM Bamboo Clothing is working to measure the impact of bamboo cultivation on biodiversity with a view to creating a standard for regenerative bamboo cultivation. Arvind, Cross Textiles and Organic Basics are also considering establishing or funding regenerative projects with farmers.
Maintaining denim’s ever-important comfort factor poses its own set of headaches. Participants report that limiting non-cellulose-based fibers to just 2 percent of fiber content is outside the perimeter of the high-stretch styles that appeal to consumers. The trend for at-home fashion has only deepened the demand for ultimate comfort and it shows no signs of slowing even as people return to work, school and travel.
Circular trims continue to be a hurdle. Brands struggle with sourcing metal zippers that can be easily removed for recycling. Removable buttons are an alternative and are used by 32 percent of participants, but many report paying a premium for the components. They also report difficulty identifying hardware solutions that eliminate conventional electroplating, which is linked to hazardous waste. Companies like Unspun and Wrangler have bypassed this roadblock by designing out finishing processes and using raw metal for their hardware.
A dozen organizations including American Eagle, Bestseller, Tommy Hilfiger and more have reported using alternatives such as keeping trims to a minimum.
Early into the pandemic, doubts were cast about whether “sustainability” would become the line-item companies eliminated to reduce costs, but Jeans Redesign participants have remained committed.
Despite unprecedented disruption to global supply chains, 80 percent of participants made fabric or jeans compliant with the guidelines. Additionally, the foundation said 54 percent of participants signed on since the pandemic began.
“By highlighting some of the main drawbacks and the fragility of our current linear economy, the pandemic has reinforced the need to rethink our economic model and build a more resilient system,” Balmond said. “As we look for ways to recover from the economic shock of Covid-19, the circular economy presents opportunities to address global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, waste and pollution.”
It’s too early, Balmond said, to understand if the Jeans Redesign-compliant jeans available in the market are withstanding everyday wear. “There is a challenge across the fashion industry to obtain this data for products, as used products are rarely returned to the original brand or manufacturer,” she said. “This presents an opportunity for business models that begin to track and take-back products to support building insights on design and production methods for more durable products.”
Challenges aside, participants have demonstrated that it is possible to make jeans fit for a circular economy.
Commonly applied solutions include the use of organic cotton, which 90 percent of participants have been able to source despite procuring the fiber being seen as one of the biggest challenges at the outset of the project, EMF stated. Brands have also pivoted to substituting rivets with bar tacks, reinforced stitching, or embroidery techniques to make recycling easier.
Safety in chemicals and processes have also been widely adopted. Though EMF reports that “further work is needed to deliver product aesthetics and performance, while ensuring all chemicals and processes used to make garments are not only safer but safe,” 94 percent of participants have achieved the minimum criteria on phasing out toxic substances. The same percentage of brands and garment manufacturers have prohibited the use of potassium permanganate, stone finishing and sand blasting from their denim finishing.
Progress is happening on both the fabric and garment side. More than three-quarters of garment manufacturers and fabric mills in the project report that they have brought fabric or jeans compliant with the guidelines to the market. Of the remaining garment manufacturers and fabric mills, 78 percent have reported that “they are ready to produce fabric or jeans compliant with the guidelines, some of which have reported they are in discussion with buyers to start producing orders.”
Additionally, one-third of brands report that they now have a jeans portfolio that is 95-100 percent aligned with Jeans Redesign guidelines. The companies that have achieved the highest percentage of products compliant with platform are small and medium-sized organizations, EMF stated.
Durability is key to keeping garments in rotation for longer, which is why the guidelines require jeans to withstand a minimum of 30 home launderings. Ninety-two percent of participants have successfully met the standard and some have exceeded it. Fairblue Jeans, Kipaş Textiles, Cross Textiles and Outerknown have exceeded this by testing for 35, 40, and 50 (Cross Textiles and Outerknown) washes, respectively.
Unspun, which debuted its first Jeans Redesign collection in January, reported using thread that can be dissolved, allowing fabrics to be disassembled for reuse or recycling.
To satisfy the traceability component of the guidelines, Los Angeles-based Reformation combined a QR code with fiber traceability technology FibreTrace. Scanning the code redirects the reader to a website where information about the garment’s composition, production processes and sourcing can be easily accessed.
Though post-consumer recycled content comes with a premium cost, denim brands are standing behind the circular alternative. EMF reports that Mud Jeans (40 percent), H&M (35 percent) and HNST (21 percent) included the highest share of post-consumer recycled content of the participant group.