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Denim Mills Show Confidence In Recycled Fibers but Will Brands Follow?

Waste not, want not.

Recycled content was the common thread across exhibitors at Kingpins New York last week, where the supply chain presented new (or expanded) recycled concepts for Spring/Summer 2021.

With cotton cultivation pegged as the thirstiest stage in the lifecycle of a jean and campaigns by Plastic Ocean International and Oceana raising awareness about the environmental harm of ocean plastic pollution, mills are prioritizing ways to provide alternatives for the denim industry.

Interest in recycled fibers is growing day by day, says Özge Özsoy, Bossa’s marketing chief. “With increasing consumer demand for more sustainable products and a rising focus around eco-friendly practices, the fashion world is taking steps to lessen its negative impact on the environment,” she said.

The mill succeeded in becoming the first textile company to produce 100 percent recycled fabric through its Re-Set collection, which Bossa began in 2006. Recycled product currently makes up 11 percent of Bossa’s production, but the Turkey-based mill’s goal is to increase this value to 25 percent in the near future.

Part of Bossa’s plan to ramp up the amount of recycled content in its production involves the consumer. The mill recently launched a project collecting used jeans from consumers to recycle into new products. The post-consumer recycled jeans are part of the mill’s new Future Denim collection, a line of 100 percent sustainable fabrics that pulls from a menu of sustainable fibers including organic cotton, recycled cotton, recycled polyester, Eco-T400 and Refibra, and combines them with Bossa’s water-saving Saveblue dyeing process.

Collaborations with vendors, customers, startups and NGOs, and investments in in-house technology have been key in Artistic Milliners’ development of fabrics made with recycled yarns, Ebru Ozaydin, Artistic Milliner senior vice president of sales and marketing, said. For Spring/Summer 2021, the company also launched new R&D platforms, Bio-Vision and Circular Blue, to support zero waste design product development for fiber technologies and water and energy usage.

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For Artistic Milliners, which introduced recycled fibers to its production in 2012 for a H&M project, post-consumer waste and recycled polyester are the most popular recycled alternatives. The mill’s portfolio of recycled fibers now includes pre-consumer recycled cotton, post-consumer recycled cotton, industrial waste and branded fibers like Tencel’s Refibra, Roica by Asahi Kasei and Unifi’s Repreve and Ocean Repreve.

Repreve, the recycled fiber made from PET bottles, has emerged as a component that consumers recognize. Searches for the material increased 130 percent in 2019, according to recent data from global fashion search platform Lyst. The story of Repreve—and its goal to recycle 20 billion plastic bottles by 2020—resonates with U.S. consumers. It’s a name they have seen on everything from Timberland boots and Fitbit bands, to Roxy swimwear and Express jeans.

In 2018, more than 20 percent of Prosperity Textile’s fabric sales contained sustainable materials, of which recycled ingredients are a part. Andy Zhong, Prosperity Textile marketing director, estimates that brands and retailers in U.S. are buying more Repreve fabrics, while European brands are ordering more fabrics made with recycled cotton.

“The demand for recycled fibers is growing steadily, and in our product portfolio, fabrics made with recycled polyester Repreve or pre-consumer recycled cotton with Recycled Claim Standard (RCS) and Global Recycled Standard (GRS) certifications are our key offerings,” he said.

And more is to come. At Kingpins, the mill presented more inspiring ideas on recycling, like the Indigo Renew line, which is upcycled from the indigo cotton yarn wastes produced at dyeing mills. Since the yarns are already dyed, no further indigo dyeing is needed to create the signature blue tone. Prosperity also introduced new fabrics with the newly launched Lyra Ecomade and T400 Ecomade fibers made recycled materials.

Pakistan-based mill Soorty uses Repreve in a variety of stretch fabrications, said Saad Talat Siddiqui, Soorty senior manager of marketing and product development. The Repreve line complements Soorty’s other recycling initiatives, including its range of denims made with organic cotton and 20 percent post-consumer recycled cotton or industrial recycled cotton.

Spring/Summer 2021 marks the first-time Mexico-based Global Denim is using Repreve. Many clients, said Anatt Finkler, creative director at Global Denim, have asked for the recycled polyester as a way to enhance fabric recovery.

Global Denim is also rolling out its Ecoloop program on a broader scale. The recycling cotton program, which is based on creating new fabrics with recycled cotton yarn sourced from post-consumer jeans, the mill’s own floor scraps and textiles from its commercial partners, launched last year as a small conceptual line. Rather than contain the recycled cotton denim to a single collection of fabrics, Global Denim is adapting fabrics across all of its seasonal product lines to be made with Ecoloop systems.

Approximately 20 percent to 25 percent of the mill’s collection for Spring/Summer 2021 has 10 percent to 15 percent recycled cotton content in its makeup, Finkler said. For now, the recycled fibers are used only for fabrics with open-end construction, but she said the mill is working on adapting the technology for ring construction.

Recycling has been a long-term priority for Artistic Fabric & Garment Industries (AFGI), which announced in 2016 that it’s in-house shredding plant is certified under the GRS to process post-consumer waste jeans into new fibers. This allows the fully vertical company to transform discarded jeans into new yarns, fabrics and jeans.

Although high-volume brands like Zara and H&M are asking for fabrics with 20 percent recycled cotton, according to AFGI senior marketing manager, Sabur Iftikhar Qureshi, the Pakistan mill is pushing forward with higher quantities. At Kingpins, the mill presented a “100 percent sustainable jean” made with 70 percent post-industrial recycled cotton and 30 percent post-consumer recycled cotton.

However, the U.S. market is still a long way from giving an entirely recycled jean the time of day. Most U.S. brands, Iftikhar Qureshi said, request just 5 percent recycled content.

American labels are considering more recycled content, he added, but one of the main hurdles they encounter is consumer mindset. “

Jeans made with recycled content creates less pollution, but they cost more. This is the problem,” Iftikhar Qureshi said. Brands are challenged by justifying the higher cost for a product that consumers still correlate to be made by “used” goods.

“They’re afraid to take that risk,” he said.

The upcharge is making the brands afraid, said Artistic Milliner’s Ozaydin, adding that their requests for “cost-neutral” is not possible until recycled content becomes “the new normal of the industry.”

And mills are still working out the kinks. Recycled fibers, Ozaydin pointed out, tend to have lower tensile and tear strength and the shades might be slightly different due to the nature of recycling processes and the dyestuff penetration. “Therefore, recycled fibers need new testing protocols and new shade assessment procedures,” she said.

Using recycled fibers in the denim fabric process is still in its infancy, but as the category matures brands will have to work on educating shoppers to create more awareness, Ozaydin said.

“The end consumer is starving for information, and transparency and authenticity are extremely important especially for Gen Z consumer,” she said. “The supply chain can organize educational platforms in collaboration with retailers, but we also have to make sure the consumer can reach solid and trustable information about the product they are investing [in].”