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Denim Circularity’s Momentum Moves Forward in Wake of a Challenging 2020

It’s clear that the denim industry’s efforts to scale circularity initiatives have continued to forge ahead this year even as headwinds persist—108 percent more recycled denim arrived between January and September in the U.S. and U.K combined compared to 2019, according to data from retail market intelligence platform Edited.

The popularity of sustainable or “conscious” purchases seems to also be reflected in a move away from fast fashion. The Edited data indicated that while the number of sustainable products arriving and selling out in the first nine months of the year in the U.S. increased 43 percent, 11 percent fewer new fast-fashion products arrived in the U.S. and U.K. in the third quarter year over year.

Amid the pressures of a global pandemic on both the supply chain and overall spending capabilities, some of circularity’s biggest wins have occurred in 2020, as explored in Rivet’s recently released In the Round report.

On an industrywide scale, perhaps the biggest one has been the realization of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Jeans Redesign guidelines, first introduced in 2019. More than 60 leading brands, manufacturers and fabric mills have committed to following the guidelines and produce jeans starting this fall, with the goal that all will be available on the market by May of next year.

Pioneering jeans brands such as HNST, Mud Jeans, Diesel, Reformation and Wrangler are among many taking the initiative to make a more circular jean, all using innovative techniques, technologies and fibers to get one step closer to true circularity. For example, Mud Jeans uses a mix of mechanically recycled denim and virgin organic cotton in its collections, and has embarked on an ambitious project to create jeans out of 100 percent post-consumer recycled denim (since delayed due to Covid).

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HNST’s jeans are concentrated with up to 56 percent recycled denim, yet the company is constantly looking to raise that number by using only cellulosic materials in its jeans, scaling back on trims and even forgoing interior labels in favor of printing product information directly on the inside pockets.

Denim circularity goals must follow tangible principles

Circularity is going to have to be more than product-driven if the denim industry is seriously considering making sweeping changes in the long run.

In fact, one report from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and Boston Consulting Group (BCG) calculated that New York Fashion Week (NYFW) generates anywhere between 40,000 tons to 48,000 tons of carbon dioxide. In the report, the organizations found that almost 40 of respondents that worked with teams that established sustainability targets said they view them only as a consideration in their planning strategies, and not as a guiding principle.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established by the United Nations are a good place to start if denim brands and suppliers are looking for guidance principles to sincerely follow and build on. Kirsty Stevenson, head of environmental and product sustainability at Gap Inc., said the retailer regularly assesses opportunities to advance its progress based on the 17 SDGs.

“When the SDGs were first unveiled, we worked to incorporate them into our materiality analysis with the help of sector-specific guides, and we continue to review these during our annual report writing process to ensure that any goals and programs align with their recommendations,” Stevenson said. “We are also part of a number of external coalitions and industry groups who have also used the SDGs to drive collective action.”

The SDGs vary in scope, ranging from more sustainability-driven initiatives such responsible consumption and production, climate change and industry innovation and infrastructure to more human rights-related concerns such as gender equality and zero hunger.

The circularity conversation must be clear and concise

Another U.N. SDG, quality education, is still a work in progress for even the top denim brands as they try to figure out how to explain to the end consumer why circularity is so important.

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, according to Camilla Skjønning Jørgensen, sustainable materials and innovation manager Bestseller, owner of fashion brands including Vero Moda and Jack & Jones.

“Consumers need accessible and clear communica­tion on the environmental benefits of recycled and circular compo­nents,” Skjønning Jørgensen said. “Today, most people outside the industry don’t know how important fibers actually are [from] a sus­tainability perspective.”

Bestseller recently cre­ated the Fashion FWD innovation lab with a “special focus on supporting innovators with circular, more sustainable solutions.” The lab has the goal is to help eliminate the most harmful chemicals from fashion and apparel by 2030.

Sedat Sualp, sales and marketing director at DNM Textiles, agreed with the sentiment that the messaging needs to be clearer as to why circularity is important.

“There are many confusing messages and different schemes which make it hard for the consumer to understand, and nobody is going to buy a jean simply because it is circular,” Sualp said.

Denim manufacturers share top investments

Within the denim circularity report, experts from leading global denim manufacturers including Siddiqsons, Isko, Orta, Bossa, Saitex and House of Gold shared both their thoughts on investing in new circular technology alongside the challenges they’ve had to navigate in getting closer to their circularity goals.

Major investments include developing a zero-waste life cycle to close the circularity loop, installing solar power and cogeneration systems, using post-consumer, pre-consumer and industrial waste fibers and dye and saving water in the indigo dyeing and garment finishing processes.

“We believe the underutilization of used garments has to be considered in order to extend the lifecycle of garments,” said Bossa sales manager Burcu Dalaman Özek. “Every year, a significant number of garments are thrown away, and if we can increase the percentage of reusing these garments and can keep them in use, we will add a lot to circularity.”

Learn more about the report findings, including top circular case studies, the sustainable and stylish jeans brands to watch, how sustainability has been infused into Spring/Summer ’21 collections and how denim brands are taking on the plastic problem. Download Rivet’s 2020 Denim Circularity Report here.