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Sustainability Won’t Cut It: Circularity is the Future Denim Needs

Contrary to popular belief, sustainability simply isn’t enough in today’s apparel industry—especially when it comes to denim.

Limiting the use of resources still requires resources. Reducing an impact still leaves an impact. Instead, working toward a circular economy is the most effective way to decrease the harmful effects of production on people and the planet.

“One of the main problems is clothes are increasingly being designed, made and sold in ways that lead them to be seen as disposable. This is not unique to the fashion industry,” said Laura Balmond, Make Fashion Circular project manager at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “In the current economy, disposability has been normalized, and almost everything has become ‘disposable.’ Products are being used less—and for shorter periods—then landfilled or burnt.”

One garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burnt every second, Balmond noted. A circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating natural systems.

In order to further its circular business model, denim manufacturer Saitex is working under the mentorship of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and participating in its Jeans Redesign program. Jeans Redesign, which is contained within the foundation’s Make Fashion Circular initiative, drives collaboration across the fashion industry to combat apparel waste and pollution via minimum requirements for garment durability, material health, recyclability and traceability.

The parameters set in Jeans Redesign intend to ensure jeans last longer, can easily be recycled, and are made in a way that is better for the environment and the health of garment workers.

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“The design and production of clothes does not marry up with the recycling infrastructure in place,” said Balmond. “Waste is the result of decisions made when designing a product; We are choosing to design clothes that cannot be recycled. Complex garments and blends of different textile materials are meaning these items cannot be processed and recycled into separate materials, so instead become waste.”

The industry needs to rethink clothing design, Balmond said, and design them so they can be easily disassembled into their constituent materials, and ensure that those materials are recyclable. “Possibly the most useful measure for fashion brands is clothing utilization—the number of times a garment is worn,” she said. “Increasing the number of times we wear our clothes is the most direct way of designing out waste and pollution in the clothing industry. An estimated $500 billion value is lost every year due to clothing that’s barely worn and rarely recycled.”

Effecting real change necessitates a systemic shift away from “business as usual.” “It requires innovation and collaboration on an unprecedented scale, which can be another challenge,” said Balmond.

“Denim manufacturers do not have full control over all decisions in their processes and input materials,” noted Virginia Rollando, Saitex’s sustainability project manager. “Because Saitex manufactures products for brands, we can suggest they choose fabrics, trims, processes and designs that are fit for a circular economy.

“However,” she continued, “these suggestions are not always carried out. An important role we have is ensuring we’re using the greenest technologies, chemicals and materials to achieve the same looks and results as traditional methods do. This is why the teams in Vietnam have done vast amounts of development and training to use such innovative technologies.”

By investing in automation for such processes as sewing, lasering, robotic brushing and spraying, Saitex is reducing waste associated with human error and quality issues. It’s also building a mill with the capacity to produce 2 million meters of sustainable fabric per month. This mill will use waste as an input, Rollando said, with gray water cleaned and reused.

Beyond automation innovation, moving toward a circular economy also means developing a circular and holistic mindset, taking into consideration aspects such as the food employees eat in order to positively impact surrounding communities and reduce climate change. Saitex, which recently spoke about circularity and its work with Jeans Redesign on behalf of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation at the ShanghaiTex machinery and textile show, has gone through audits and certification processes to meet GOTS and GRS standards for producing fully organic and recycled garments.

At the end of the day, collaboration is the most essential component in furthering the circular business model.

“Investing in and offering the most sustainable technologies is pointless unless brands are willing to use them. The Jeans Redesign is the key to completing the circle in Saitex’s transformation,” said Rollando.

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