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Startups Show Denim Brands the Way Forward

High tech meets high fashion in Unspun’s new Genesis jeans collection, which features circular denim developed from body scans and equipped with QR codes for transparency.

The innovation ticks nearly every box of  industry demands—circularity, traceability, sustainability and waste reduction. The collection aligns with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Jeans Redesign principles for a circular economy, featuring recyclable fibers like GOTS-certified organic cotton, removable and recyclable buttons from trims manufacturer Dorlet, and fabric from Resortecs, a brand of threads that dissolve at a high heat for easier recycling. The need for inventory is naturally phased out of the process—as jeans are only made once they’re sold—and traceability is achieved through fashion tech startup EON’s Circular ID Protocol, which provides material data on the jeans’ origins to ensure responsible material use and manufacturing, as well as a continuous circular life.

While that series of buzzwords might seem daunting to traditional denim brands, the tech startup is on a mission to break barriers and have its processes adopted throughout the industry.  A report from sustainability consulting group Quantis indicated that industry emissions would be halved if all clothing was made using Unspun’s technology. However, some companies remain hesitant.

According to Natasha Franck, EON’s founder and CEO, the biggest barrier to adoption is not technical. In fact, she noted that EON only needed two hours to generate the Unspun IDs to establish QR codes, and Unspun was able to seamlessly add them to the products. Instead, what often gets in the way is what she calls “human complexity.”

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“The biggest challenges are usually the operational complexities,” said Franck during Friday’s panel discussion at the Rewire: Sustainability 2021 online event. “[Things like] navigating the organizational structures, identifying the key decision maker and determining whether it aligns with other goals.”

Walden Lam, Unspun’s co-founder and “chief hustler,” once attempted to collaborate with a large denim brand on a line of circular, on-demand jeans made from the brand’s old denim, but said it ultimately fell through, and attributed the failed partnership to a “disconnect” between goals and actions.

Executives from Unspun, Resortecs and EON discussed some of the biggest obstacles in circular design adoption in the denim industry.
Unspun’s Genesis jean. Courtesy

“In these forums, we talk about urgency as it relates to the climate crisis, but then there’s a disconnect between that urgency and the day-to-day of how we live,” he said, noting that it can still take a company three weeks to schedule a call, despite having timely sustainability goals.

“If the industry is full of people individually that are really keen on creating change [and doing so urgently], I think we can go a long way with the industry,” he added. “If three startups that are under resourced can do this, then 1,000-person, sophisticated companies must be able to do significantly more.”

That’s not to say large companies haven’t gotten involved in Unspun’s mission. In 2019, Weekday, a Swedish denim and fashion brand owned by the H&M Group, piloted Unspun’s body scanning technology that’s accessible through Unspun’s app or at one of its three locations in the U.S. and Hong Kong.

Cedric Vanhoeck, founder and designer at Resortecs, urged other companies to ditch their internal politics, rigid KPIs and general fear of failure in favor of a more sustainable future, noting that excessive deliberating “often takes more time and energy than just doing it.”

“A common concept in the startup world is ‘affordable loss,’” he said. “It’s all about assessing the risk that is linked to an action.”

He added that, if the goal is to create traceable jeans, experiment with a QR code. At the end of the day, the company will have accomplished its goal, and the worst-case scenario is that the jeans don’t sell—but that’s still better than nothing.

“Sometimes it’s just better to try and to fail,” he said. “You will only know once you do it.”