Skip to main content

The Benefits of a Circular Economy in Denim Outweigh the Hurdles, Experts Say

The buzz about circularity in the denim category grows louder as proof of concepts successfully launch at retail and brands develop engaging stories that underscore the value and substance of circular garments to consumers.

Denim Première Vison in London last week highlighted these strides with a series of panels featuring speakers from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Mud Jeans, Lenzing and more.

“We’re seeing the market reach a certain maturity,” said Denim Première Vision director Guglielmo Olearo. “Sustainability is a necessity, it’s not just an additional marketing tool. That’s why we decided this year to dedicate one full day to sustainability because we think that today sustainability is as important as fashion.”

Here’s a snapshot of the conversations swirling around circularity at Denim Première Vision.

Champion of circularity

When it comes to sustainability, recycling is the last option for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Founded in 2010, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation works with brand partners and governments to accelerate the transition to a circular economy by sharing news and case studies, circular workshops and launching systemic initiatives, including Make Fashion Circular.

The initiative, launched last year at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, works to create a new textile economy and includes partners like H&M, Nike and Stella McCartney.

Echoing Denim Première Vison’s focus on responsible design, Francois Souchet, project manager for Ellen MacArthur, urged the denim supply chain to design its own waste. “We need to start thinking about the lifecycle of the products we create,” he said.

Related Story

The foundation is based on three principles: to design out waste and pollution, keep products in use, and to regenerate natural systems to ensure they come back year after year. Before recycling is ever up for consideration, Souchet said, the foundation encourages brands, retailers and consumers to find ways to reuse, refurbish or share a garment.

“Companies are working in all different directions,” Souchet said. “We try to come together and think about what can be accomplished on a bigger level.”

Selling circularity

When Mud Jeans launched in 2012 as a post-consumer recycled denim brand that also offers a leasing program, the brand caught the attention of savvy consumers seeking new ways to save a buck—and the planet.

Jeans retail for 119 euros ($135), or consumers can pay a small monthly fee (7.50 euros after a one-time membership fee) to rent a jean for 12 months. Consumers can trade in leased jeans for a new pair, which helps guarantee that the jeans will be repaired, recycled or upcycled by the company.

Today, six years later, a quarter of Mud Jeans are leased. The percentage of consumers leasing hasn’t increased, but the total volume has, said Mud Jeans co-owner Dion Vijgeboom.

Leasing jeans is just one part of the brand’s efforts to create a circular economy. The company, which recently received the Nordic Swan Ecolabel certification for 41 of its styles, is investing in R&D to increase the amount of post-consumer recycled denim used its production, which currently stands around 40 percent.

However, the cost of being a sustainable brand remains a hurdle for Mud Jeans.

Vijgeboom says scaling hinges on how widely post-consumer denim is adopted by the industry and the frequency of which consumers recycle their jeans. Processing recycled cotton is still substantially more than virgin cotton, but Vijgeboom said the company expects to “optimize” its production once it reaches a quantity of 500,000 jeans a year.

And the brand is testing its own limits, by investing in R&D that will help increase each pair’s eco footprint.

“We would like to go higher, but we are currently recycling through mechanical recycling,” Eva Engelen, head of CSR for Mud Jeans said, which shortens fibers. In order to keep strength and performance, the fibers need to be blended with virgin cotton.

“But we should go higher than 40 percent and we are investigating other innovations to do this,” she said.

Circularity in demand

The quick adoption of Lenzing’s Refibra technology in denim helps quell doubts about the viability of circular materials in commercial products.

Since launching Refibra in 2017, the reclaimed cellulose, which is converted from post-industrial cotton waste, has been implemented into 12 retail programs with brands like Levi’s, DL1961, Kings of Indigo and Reformation.

“This is really showing proof that we can produce this product and it can be reached by consumers,” Carey said. “It’s about how we can inform consumers and bring the message and understanding of this value.”

And the company is ramping up the amount of waste it’s recycling—a request Carey says is coming from the market. In 2019, Lenzing will begin to offer Refibra made with 10 percent more post-industrial cotton, increasing the amount of waste recycled from 20 percent to 30 percent.

“Brands are asking how can we bring in more circularity in our products,” she said, adding that many brands and retailers are vying to set circular standards and goals. “There’s a will for circularity.”