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Alt Together Now: What Will It Take to Make Circular Fibers the Industry Standard?

If there’s one word in fashion that’s falling out of favor, it just might be “virgin.”

Extracting fresh new resources from the planet to create increasingly disposable clothing has taken a devastating toll on the planet and lent urgency to the issue of embracing circular and recycled alternatives. A quick scan of the headlines offers a sobering look at the grim reality of modern consumption’s destructive effects, says Nicole Rycroft, founder and executive director of forest preservation nonprofit Canopy.

“Anybody who’s read a scientific journal over the past five years has probably also reached for a bottle of wine,” Rycroft said during an U.S. Fashion Industry Association webinar addressing an action plan for next-gen fibers. A climate that’s heating up faster than expected means the planet is now home to 68 percent fewer animals than it was in the 1970s, she added, and safeguarding forests represents 30 percent of the climate solution. “Protecting forest ecosystems is about stabilizing the health of our planet,” she said.

Razing ancient and endangered forests to pulp trees into the cellulose that produces incredibly soft T-shirts and jeans is just a fraction of fashion’s myriad fiber foibles. Cotton’s thirsty ways are well documented while polyester keeps much of the denim sector hooked on habitat-harming fossil fuels. Meanwhile, textile waste continues to surge in the U.S., where the growth in castoff clothing and linens outpaces virtually every other waste stream, according to a story by environmental consultants Resource Recycling Systems examining municipal data from 2010 to 2017.

To its credit, the business of making denim has warmed to the idea of replacing first-run fibers with viable alternatives. The sector is making strides with recycled materials that rework waste like plastic bottles or post-consumer cotton, and circular counterparts that convert some combination of textile trash and “traditional” waste into Instagrammable new garments built with environmental bonafides.

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Consumers are paying attention, too. The first half of 2020 saw a 19 percent uptick in social media influencers posting about sustainable fashion, according to influencer marketing firm Traackr’s State of the Influence 2020 report.

Full speed ahead

Though the coronavirus pandemic has upended much of the apparel industry’s plans for 2020, many denim brands remain committed to creating jeanswear sourced from low-impact materials. And the crisis is driving consumers to question their fashion choices as well.

“The global pandemic has given many people the opportunity to pause and reflect on their purchasing habits,” said Roian Atwood, former senior director of global sustainable business for Kontoor Brands, the owner of Wrangler and Lee. “And as people are spending more time in the digital world, it has given them more time to research products prior to purchase. This increase in conscientious consumption directly correlates with an increase in demand for environmentally friendly, long-lasting products.”

Kirsty Stevenson, head of environmental and product sustainability for Gap Inc., agrees that the Covid-19 pandemic has “amplified” the importance of prioritizing recycled and circular fiber adoption in order to “answer our customers’ demand for more sustainable and lower-impact product.” She’s also encouraged by “significant investment” in startup textile innovators, a development she views as “very promising” for fashion’s circularity push.

Artistic Milliners echoes the idea that the coronavirus crisis has only “accelerated” the interest in and demand for sustainable and circular fibers that was already trending upward before the pandemic struck. The Pakistan-based mill, which makes for brands like G-Star Raw, says its year-old Circular Blue platform serves as a “direct reflection of our philosophy seeking new approaches for crafting fabrics that employ recycled and circular fibers—cumulative efforts to minimize waste, energy and water footprint by closing the loop.”

“We’re proud to be part of such transformation as a denim fabric mill who offers both circular and recycled fibers,” says Ebru Ozaydin, the former senior vice president of sales and marketing for the vertical denim mill.

Kontoor Brands-owned Wrangler views recycled and circular fibers not as an “either/or” scenario but as “very similar parts of an overall sustainable materials strategy,” Atwood said.

“Whether from plastic bottles or old jeans, our industry should continue to push for innovative solutions to waste,” he said. “It does seem that synthetics made from non-textile waste like plastic bottles certainly have a lot of momentum, but recycled cotton and recycled polyester have been around for a long time. What the industry has been missing is the infrastructure for post-consumer apparel recycling.”

Wrangler doubled down on its circularity commitment in October by partnering with Finnish innovator Infinited Fiber Company, whose technology regenerates cotton-rich textile waste into new new textile fibers using responsible chemistry, “take the next step toward a more holistically circular apparel industry,” Atwood said. “This is a significant technology evolution because we are using a preferred chemical solvent to reduce solid textile and non-textile waste.”

Climate consciousness prompted Bestseller, owner of brands including Vero Moda and Jack & Jones, to create the Fashion FWD innovation lab with a “special focus on supporting innovators with circular, more sustainable solutions,” says Camilla Skjønning Jørgensen, sustainable materials and innovation manager for the Danish clothing company. Bestseller is exploring several options on the market, tapping forward-thinkers and piloting projects with not just Infinited but also H&M-backed Swedish textile innovator Renewcell, which decomposes the cellulose in cotton and viscose into the circular fiber Circulose, and Finland’s Spinnova, whose ecological breakthrough technology manufactures cellulose-based fibers.

“Of course, the pandemic gives challenges as the entire world is affected by it,” Skjønning Jørgensen said. “But we are determined to keep working with this agenda.”

Gap Inc. sees the momentum shifting toward circular fibers, according to Neil Bell, director, denim fiber and fabric R&D for the San Francisco-based denim maker, with promising advancements happening in “chemically recycled fiber technologies that will enable higher quality fibers from waste-based inputs.” He’s encouraged by the growing availability and scale of mechanically recycled cotton versus its relative scarcity just a few years ago.

Atwood agrees that circularity has propelled forward. “Bringing an innovation to market is not easy,” he said. “Over the past five years, the technology behind circular fibers has matured and proven to be commercial-ready. There is no longer a technical challenge, instead the biggest challenge is the industry infrastructure, but as companies like Infinited Fiber scale up, we believe it will become easier to integrate circular fibers into the established denim supply chain.”

He’s careful to point out that Wrangler doesn’t see recycled or circular fibers as being “at odds” with each other. “As technology advances, we look forward to continue to use both in our supply chain along with cotton grown with regenerative practices,” he added. “And, that’s the beauty of a circular economy—that materials can be kept in use as long as possible as we collaborate within our supply chains across industries. This is an opportunity to design consumer goods in a way that dramatically reduces waste and pollution while concurrently regenerating natural systems in agriculture.”

High-wire act

Opinions vary widely on what constitutes the prime ratio of circular and recycled inputs to virgin, which some believe offers performance benefits compared with second-run fibers.

The sky’s the limit, according to Artistic Milliners, which helped G-Star Raw create its Zero Waste Denim using 100 percent recycled fibers. “In fact, there is no optimal ratio but more the design idea and the storytelling behind the concept,” Ozaydin said.

Many brands are taking the slow-and-steady approach, and starting by swapping out a small share of virgin for an eco-friendly fiber. Bell says analysis proves that using 10 percent mechanically recycled cotton is the “sweet spot” for most denim blends “because we aren’t willing to trade off quality” characteristics like strength and durability—though Gap Inc. is “exploring innovative ways to increase the percentage.”

However, fabric blends further complicate the tricky issue of textile recycling and creating new materials using post-consumer fiber, says Alice Hartley, director of product sustainability for Gap Inc.

“For many textile recyclers today, polyester content in denim (whether virgin or recycled) is problematic and they would prefer to work with 100 percent cotton garments, a specification that conflicts with the type of soft and stretchy denim that consumers want to buy,” she explained. “We are working to address this fundamental challenge via innovation with our partner HKRITA, to find ways to separate and recycle blended fabrics so that we don’t have to trade off fabric performance characteristics with circularity. Solving this issue is a key hurdle toward creating truly circular denim fabrics that can be widely recycled.”

Wrangler, too, acknowledged the delicate balancing act of addressing environmental concerns while delivering the denim fit and feel that meet shoppers’ standards. “Our designers work to increase the sustainability of our fabrics and finishes while maintaining the fit and durability that consumers expect,” Atwood said. “We see recycled cotton, recycled synthetics and sustainably-grown cotton as the three key fibers for future products.

One of the principles of the circular economy, as defined by our partners the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, is ‘regenerate natural systems,’ so we do see the opportunity for regenerative cotton in a circular future. However, we are moving away from virgin polyester, with a goal to be at 100 percent sustainable synthetics by 2030.”

Skjønning Jørgensen says the question of considering recycled or circular versus virgin is akin to a question of fantasy versus reality. “We need to distinguish between optimal and realistic,” she says. No one disputes that denim garments wholly made from recycled inputs are—or should be—the denim industry’s goal, and incorporate “mono materials” or just minimal amounts of mixed materials that innovators can re-use at end of life.

“Realistically, we need to look at what quality level we can keep when we blend in recycled fibers, and that depends on various things, like the quality of the waste input and if it’s mechanical recycling or chemical recycling,” she added.

Though denim is improving its uptake of eco-friendly fibers, “moving from a linear to a circular model requires large-scale systems change,” says Gap’s Stevenson. To truly move the needle and wean denim from its virgin addiction, the sustainability czar says “multiple levers need to be pulled”—from ensuring demand for circular fibers to scaling the materials at competitive quality and prices. But she also urges “sound policy and economic incentives to accelerate the pace of adoption,” adding that progress in material technology solutions will go a long way toward persuading more denim brands to get onboard.

Ozaydin also identifies the challenge of scale as a “threat” to denim’s conversion to circular and recycled options, noting that “some circular fiber companies are still startups” while a number of denim brands “are not ready to pay the upcharge that is currently inevitable for certain fibers.”

Scale, says Skjønning Jørgensen, “takes time, investments and resources from the entire value chain. Moreover, we need well-functioning waste collecting systems to capture the waste, sort the waste and make sure it is used as a feedstock for new fibers.”

Circular storytelling

Denim also needs to figure out how to explain to consumers why sustainability matters.

“We need greater awareness of what goes into making our customers most loved pair of jeans, how to care for them, and also how to extend the life of them” by repairing and reselling items before casting them into the waste stream, Stevenson says. “The benefits of recycled and circular denim fibers directly impact the health and wellness of our customers—by buying [more] sustainably, we are all creating a more healthy planet for our families and communities.”

Ozaydin gives brands credit for using their stores and websites as sustainability storytelling opportunities “but still there’s lot to do to educate the final consumer.” Denim labels, she says, must “communicate through their product,” including labels, hangtags and packaging, while also leveraging their blogs, smartphone apps and social media pages.

Transparency, says Wrangler’s Atwood, is inextricably linked with sustainability and circularity. “Both educating consumers on the denim supply chain and sharing metrics with them around impacts of processes and materials will allow consumers a complete view of their own impacts and help them make a more informed decision,” he added.

If denim purchasers aren’t aware of what a sustainable jean’s higher price tag really means, it’s because brands aren’t getting the message across. “Consumers need accessible and clear communication on the environmental benefits of recycled and circular components,” Skjønning Jørgensen says. “Today, most people outside the industry don’t know how important fibers actually are [from] a sustainability perspective.”

This article was previously published in Rivet’s circularity report “In the Round.” Click here to download the full report.