It used to be that there were many barriers to a circular economy. But now, with more awareness and resources than ever, and a textile recycling market valued at $350 billion, circularity is growing increasingly within reach.
During a Kingpins24 panel on Tuesday, denim experts dedicated to expanding the circular economy discussed the ways in which circularity has evolved, and what it will take to advance it further.
“In the past, I thought that if we announced that we use recycled content in our fabric, people would think that was [lower quality],” said Marcel Imaizumi, a director at Vicunha, a textile producer in Brazil. “But today, that concept actually adds value to our product.”
Vicunha’s Absolut Eco collection made in partnership with Adriano Goldschmied was created using pre-consumer denim fabric that reduces water consumption by 95 percent and removes 90 percent of the chemicals used in a typical production cycle. But in order to effect real change, according to Imaizumi, more companies need to come together to make products like this.
“What’s the sense of creating a sustainable fabric if, in the process, it’s washed in a laundry that doesn’t monitor chemical and water usage?” he said.
Imaizumi noted that the biggest remaining hurdle to expanding circularity is transparency, adding that “there is an education mission ahead of us” that doesn’t just extend to consumers, but spans the entire industry.
And according to Jean Hegedus, director of sustainability at The Lycra Company, it’s not just the fashion industry that needs to own responsibility for the shift to circularity. There are other sectors involved, including waste.
“Ownership is a big question,” she said. “Is it the responsibility of the brands to take back used garments, or is it the responsibility of the waste industry, or is it some sort of collaboration between the two?”
Hegedus posed the idea of “downcycling” versus “upcycling,” referencing the concept of turning denim scraps into housing insulation, as featured in projects such as Blue Jeans Go Green. Since inception in 2006, the project has set records for the number of clothing items collected for recycling. In 2013, it collected its one millionth piece of denim.
Though controversial—critics feel uncomfortable with the idea of shredding denim that could have otherwise been repaired and reworn—programs like this can actually provide a longer-term solution.
“If clothing is collected, and it’s made into insulation for buildings, and it sits in that building for 30, 50 or 70 years, in some cases that may be a better alternative than trying to put it back into a garment that might end up in landfill sooner,” she said. “There are a lot of big industry issues that that we have to come together on.”
While some continue to debate which industries should bear the responsibility of textile recycling, many agree that it shouldn’t be placed solely the consumer. Susan Lawrence, vice president of sales and marketing North America at Artistic Fabric Mills, explained that a lack of information—or worse, an uptick in misinformation supplied by companies guilty of greenwashing—can breed confusion and make matters worse. By shifting the burden away from the consumer and onto the industry, it pushes circular items into the market and provides fewer opportunities for consumers to purchase an unsustainable product.
“The industry is focusing on marketing stories instead of real circular innovation, and this is confusing the end consumer,” she said. “Ultimately, the end consumer will buy what is presented to them. What if we just sold 100 percent sustainable denim?”