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What Will It Take to Scale Post-Consumer Recycled Denim?

Bossa, Kilim and Berto were among the global mills at Denim Première Vision last week that presented fabrics made with fiber from post-consumer recycled denim. “You can find it, there’s no more excuses. Post-consumer recycled denim is being offered,” Helene Smits, circular fashion strategist at Circle Economy, said.

During a panel at Denim Première Vision, industry insiders discussed the denim industry’s adoption of post-consumer recycled denim (PCRD) and the best practices to scale and promote it at the consumer level. The future of PCRD may rely on the back office. When it comes to adopting any new technology as an organization, Lori DiVito, a professor at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences and co-founder of the Alliance of Responsible Denim, said it needs to have the leadership in it in order to experiment.

“It’s all about experimenting, so having the time and the dedicated team to experiment with recycled denim, that’s really the key element,” she said. That means allocating the resources not only financially but human resources that can test PCRD, design it, see how it performs in the market and then adopt it on a greater level. “It’s a learning process. And that’s the difference with the sustainability champions, those that have really incorporated this in their system of production from the get-go, and those that are trying to adopt it in a different way and so there’s different learning paths that lead to adoption,” DiVito added.

Controlling the supply chain

Antwerp, Belgium-based denim brand, HNST, will begin to deliver its first batch of jeans made with 56 percent (PCRD) this month. Denim by HNST is made in a way that fosters a circular economy, meaning they can be recycled again. Embroidered rivets replace metal pins, buttons are removable, pocketing fabrics include fiber made from recycled white T-shirts, and labels are made from GOTS-certified jacron, a paper-like material.

HNST founder Tome Duhoux compares the brand’s business model to the wine grape harvest. In September 2017, the brand initiated a two-week collection campaign in Belgium, where it collected over 6,000 pairs of old jeans that were sorted and recycled into new denim. Fibers made from the non-wearable jeans were blended with Tencel and woven back into denim fabric in Italy.

In September of this year, Duhoux said it will hold a second “harvesting campaign” where it will again ask consumers to donate unwanted denim to create a second collection. “We want to make it a yearly tradition,” he said. “We want to use the resources we harvest during a fixed period of time during the year to actually make our next collection for the next year.”

The goal is for HNST to get into a rhythm of harvesting its resources, engaging consumers to find out what kind of products they would like and then launching them a couple of months later. “It’s a much more thorough relationship with the customers,” Duhoux said. “You can communicate what’s going on and give insights of the production process. That’s how we like to do things differently, and for customers that want more detailed information, everything can be found in a transparent way on our website.”

HNST shares its supply chain partners, from spinning (the European Spinning Group) to dyeing (Italy-based PureDenim), as well as a breakdown of the costs. “When we started with HNST, the goal was not to use purely post-consumer recycled denim, but our goal was how can we make a high-quality denim that is made with the highest percentage possible of PCRD. I didn’t want to have any compromises on the quality of denim,” Duhoux said.

Style trumps sustainability

Quality, style and fit remain essential factors in buying denim, regardless of its sustainable story.

“Consumers buy denim because it looks good on them, or their ass looks good. It helps their self-esteem. That’s why they buy denim and whether it’s made of PCRD or not isn’t really a buying argument for the customer,” Duhoux said. “For us, its important and we like to tell the story about it, but it’s not the only argument we give customers about why they should or shouldn’t buy our denim.”

That’s not to say HNST is chasing trends. Its next collection won’t include new denim styles. The brand’s first jeans were intentionally designed to be timeless, both in silhouette and wash, Duhoux noted. Styles include women’s vintage-inspired boyfriend jeans and skinny fits; men’s jeans are slim, tapered and straight. Instead, he said new products will be additional items like a shirt or skirt that are complementary to the jeans HNST already offer.

For Dutch brand Kuyichi, which currently has three jeans styles made with PCRD fabric from Bossa in stores and more in production for July and August delivery, successfully selling PCRD jeans is a balancing act of style and substance.

“We present beautiful, well-fitting denim that is in your favorite fits and that we keep continuing over the seasons so you can always return for your favorite denim. Then we show you what new innovation we have integrated into our jeans,” Kuyichi CSR manager Zoe Damen said.

Since launching in 2001 with the purpose to made 100 percent organic cotton denim, Kuyichi has maintained its consumer base by offering a mixed bag of season-less classics and trendy updates. “We have the perfect black denim or blue jean, but besides that we have seasonal denim because we see that shops really want new denim every season in their store. We try to have a balance of timeless design but also do something with the trends and that the shops want,” Damen said.

Eliminating the limitations

PCRD comes with its own set of drawbacks. Damen said she would like to see the percentage of PCRD increase in jeans. Kuyichi currently uses up to 20 percent of PCRD fiber in its jeans in order to maintain quality and hand feel. “There’s limitations in the percentages of how much recycled denim and cotton you can add to a garment because the fibers are shorter. This also limits the possibilities of the fabric. It’s also time consuming to ensure that the quality of fabric is what you want,” she said.

However, Damen said she believes Kuyichi’s supply chain is motivated by the idea of PCRD and its potential. “The suppliers we work with want to move forward, they want to take this step toward more sustainable denim. We challenge them and they challenge us to really think in a new way about this topic, so can we break the limit of the percentage of PCRD in a fabric,” she added.

It’s also time consuming to decipher what’s inside post-consumer garments. HNST created its own protocol and testing to ensure that it is using high quality PCRD fibers, but Duhoux said he’s concerned that others companies may not take on that responsibility. He urged the denim industry to come together to agree upon what kind of checks should be made in order to prevent other substances from staying in the loop.

“It’s a very good evolution to see more brands use [PCRD], but the danger is that we also end up where anyone can start making claims that aren’t really true. We have to make sure that we don’t destroy the opportunities that we have with using PCRD before its actually here,” he said.

Connecting with consumers

However, Duhoux said if you engage your customers you can turn all the limitations of PCRD into a benefit. “That’s why we started with the big collecting campaign where everyone was invited to bring in their old denim. At the same time, we were very open about the production process as well,” he said. “After we launched we told the story to our community, we took them along with every step and also talked about all the difficulties we came across. We’re very transparent. Customers start believing you and they become part of the journey. That’s a big opportunity.”

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to designing and promoting PCRD—or sustainability for that matter. “There’s a difference between brands that have differentiated themselves on sustainability to start, and a regular jeans brand that starts to communicate about this,” Smits said. “There will be a different strategy for each brand.”

However, one fact that all denim brands should take into account is there’s a large growing group of consumers that care about this. The Alliance for Responsible Denim is working on developing a tool box for brands so they know what questions to ask suppliers, what certifications or standards to look for and how to share this information with the end user. “That is one of the things that as a collective we can discuss and try to set up guidelines to help guide the brands in their communication to consumers,” DiVito added.

Sharing its sustainable model with consumers is proving to be a major advantage Kuyichi. The company is in the process of making a menu that shares with consumers what new sustainable innovations the brand has added into the makeup of its jeans, where and how it was made and the certification standards it meets. That way, Damen said, consumers have the option to dive in and really find out everything about the jean that they want to know, if they choose to.

The way Damen sees it, the youngest generations buying denim right now are engaged in sustainability thought and want to make a difference through their buying behavior. “When they buy a pair of jeans with post-consumer recycled denim, the benefits are tangible—less water need for the fibers, less CO2—it is more tangible that you’re wearing jeans that make a difference,” she said. “There are huge benefits communicating this story to the consumers because they want to be part of this change.”

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