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The Denim Industry Inches Toward a Circular Economy as Mills Adopt Recycled Fibers

The denim industry is good at making “new” feel old. The plethora and popularity of vintage-inspired denim collections in the market can attest to that.

However, new recycled fibers and technologies are also allowing the denim industry to become increasingly good at making “old” feel and look new.

Lenzing’s Refibra technology gained momentum in 2018 as a network of global mills like Artistic Milliners, Candiani, Dynamo, Prosperity, Soorty and more, integrated fiber made from upcycled post-production cotton scraps and wood pulp sourced from certified sustainable forestry.

The fiber has been implemented into 12 retail programs with brands like Levi’s, DL1961, Kings of Indigo and Reformation.

And Lenzing is ramping up the amount of waste it’s recycling for Refibra—a request that’s coming direct from the denim 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.

Lycra has made strides to improve performance in stretch technologies, and advance both their comfort and sustainability in denim. The company’s latest innovation, Lycra T400 with EcoMade technology, maintains the stretch, recovery and retention characteristics of Lycra T400 fiber but with a sustainable twist.

Lycra T400 with EcoMade is comprised of 68 percent sustainable fibers. Jean Hegedus, global director of Invista’s denim business, explained that 50 percent of the fiber is made from recycled PET and 18 percent made from plant-based materials. Hegedus added that the fiber fits in nicely with brands that have 2020 sustainability goals to meet, and lives up to the performance standards of its popular predecessor.

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Mills are also creating circular economies in their own production.

Italian denim mill Berto introduced Pianeta, a fabric made with 35 percent cotton and 65 percent cotton yarn regenerated from its own production waste.

Berto marketing director Francesca Polato explained that when the indigo dyeing process has stopped, extra dyed yarn remains on either end of the line. This unavoidable waste is transformed into a new yarn, ultimately allowing the mill to slash its water consumption. The fabric is also treated with a new finishing process that requires 85 percent less water than the standard process and reduces CO2 emissions.

Mexico-based mill Global Denim also tested a new collection of closed loop denim. The fabric is made with recycled fabrics from its own facilities.

Recycled polyester continues to be a popular component. Twin Dragon reported that it is using pre-reduced indigo liquid, adopting water- and chemical-reducing finishing processes and ramping up its use of recycled polyester in 2018. The mill is moving to 100 percent recycled polyester throughout its entire collection.

S Gene with Repreve remains a key product for Cone Denim. The stretch technology, which was upgraded with the branded recycled polyester fiber in 2017, offers brands a sustainable dual-core stretch product. Sewing thread made with Repreve from Cone’s sister company, American & Efird, is poised to further enhance brands’ eco stories.

Indigo Textile Ltd. takes a multi-prong approach to sustainability. In 2018 the mill bowed 100 percent recycled fabrications made with recycled cotton and polyester. The mill also rolled out Orbit, a collection of laser-friendly denim that dyes just the outer core of the yarn. The denim has the same look of denim dyed through to the center, but requires 30 percent less water.

And a truly sustainable jean considers every detail, down to the zipper tape. YKK launched its new environmentally friendly zipper called Natulon. The product is produced from recycled plastic materials, which are broken into pieces, reproduced as pellets, and finally yarn to make the sustainable zipper tape.

The trims company also presented a lyocell fiber zipper made from Tencel fiber yarn tape. The 100 percent Tencel fabric provides a smooth touch for consumers with sensitives skin, absorbs moisture and dries faster than YKK standard cotton zippers, plus it reduces the growth of bacteria.