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Circularity in Denim Demands Fewer Silos and Less Focus on Profit

The pandemic is posing an opportunity to reinvent the fashion industry according to new consumer ideals and values. For the denim industry, this could mean finally shifting to a circular business model that will reduce waste and increase the quality and longevity of a garment.

During Kingpins24, representatives from the denim supply chain said that while the move is possible, it will require the industry to collaborate, invest in technology and refine its priorities.

For denim designer and consultant Malin Ekengren, this requires companies to put less of an emphasis on revenue—a challenging concept for businesses that have always considered profit a top goal.

“A company that wants to [shift to circularity] needs to be serious about closing the loop and not only be driven by financial growth,” she said. “I don’t think it’s possible to try and combine sustainability and profits—I think that’s yesterday.”

But asking companies to deprioritize financial gains is easier said than done. For that reason, the ask goes beyond the industry and requires government and consumer support, Ekengren said.

“Consumers as well as people in the industry need to put pressure on governments for standardizing certain things like recycling of textile waste,” she said, drawing the comparison to standards placed on food. “It’s a bit like fast food—it might not be good for you, [just as] fast fashion is not good for the planet.”

Using recycled fibers to make new fabrics is a starting point for mills that want to introduce circularity into their product design.

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Kaltex has been using recycled fibers in its production for the past 15 years. As such, the Mexican denim mill has become a thought leader in the industry’s move to circular design, a concept that has taken center stage as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is causing society to reconsider wasteful consumption habits.

Currently, Kaltex’s Eco collection is made up of 10-20 percent recycled content—a ratio that Kaltex vice president of sales and marketing Rich Tobin said provides positive environmental impact without any trade off in aesthetic. But, he noted, there’s still room for improvement.

“As manufacturers, we need to find a way to manage the stewardship of the input variables to the point that we can return a large percentage of them in a circular fashion,” he said.

Kaltex’s facilities include the largest pneumatic tube system that recovers fiber from post-industrial operations. The mill then combines these reclaimed fibers with cutting scraps from its garment production facilities to re-use. The company also uses meticulous “almost obsessive” color coding to guide workers through the process of recycling scraps.

All of this comes at a cost. While some buyers may assume the cost of recycled fibers would be less than virgin based on the fact that they already exist, Tobin warns that the recycling requires people to collect the materials, and covers their time as well as their skills.

“The waste doesn’t go away,” he said. “We’re not selling it and it’s not going into a landfill, so I would argue that the cost, relative to how we operate now, is much more beneficial. It costs more to operate in a benevolent way.”

To create a truly circular product, however, all players in the supply chain will have to work together.

Sebla Onder, sustainability lead at Turkish denim mill Orta Anadolu, said circularity is a group effort and referenced several of Orta’s latest collaborations, including the Alliance for Responsible Denim and Turkey Materials Marketplace, a cloud-based platform designed to facilitate cross-industry materials reuse among Turkish companies.

When it comes to collaborations, Onder says it’s crucial to choose partners wisely. “You need to inspire them, and you also need to be inspired by them,” she said.

This year, Orta is celebrating 65 years with a refreshed mission statement. While the mill has always considered its environmental footprint—or what it takes from the planet—it’s using the milestone anniversary to shift the focus to its handprint, or what it gives back to the planet.

“Set small targets you can achieve day by day,” Onder said. “And be open minded, learn from others and share your knowledge with other parties as well.”