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This Denim Factory’s Waste Feeds Guatemalan Coffee Crops

Ask Arianne Engelberg why her family’s 63-year-old textile factory dove headfirst into circular and sustainable operations and her answer is simple: relevance.

Engelberg, creative director of The New Denim Project operated within Guatemala’s Iris Textiles—a cotton yarn and fabric manufacturer founded by her grandfather in 1956—said, “We knew that if the factory was to remain relevant for another 60-plus years, we had to innovate and change the way we are sourcing and disposing of our raw materials.”

Iris Textiles produces products across a range of categories, from clothing for men, women and children to kitchen and tabletop, home and bedding, and footwear.

Given that the Central American nation exports more apparel and textiles than even banana, coffee, and sugar, “We thought it’s a tremendous powerful industry which is in in desperate need of innovation,” Engelberg shared at the Fashinnovation conference in New York City last week.

Engelberg, who’s been involved with the New Denim Project since 2014, quickly realized that systemic change requires identifying like-minded partners—even if they’re outside of the textile industry.

“If we really want to create change in the industry, we need to create a completely new way of thinking,” explained Engelberg, who works alongside her father and sister in a true family business. Companies that want to embrace sustainability and circularity must conceive of “how we can collaborate inter-industrially to reach our goals,” she added.

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Tackling material waste—a “design flaw,” the project points out on its website—was the starting and focal point for The New Denim Project. Engelberg said her team began by amassing post-industrial denim scraps from Guatemala’s denim factories “because we’re the third-largest denim producer in America.”

With all of the fabric scraps piling up in virtually every denim factory around, “we thought we should create a parallel system that can support this material and industry,” Engelberg said. The post-industrial problem can vary depending on the sophistication of the manufacturer. Facilities that employ top-of-the-line technology typically will see excess waste in the amount of 15 percent coming from their cutting tables, she explained, though “obviously not all factories have the best pattern making so it’s much more than this.”

Efforts are underway in the industry to collect and recycle textile scraps but even these good intentions often fall short, according to Engelberg, who asserts that just 0.1 percent of the recycled fiber gathered by charities and takeback programs ends up finding a second life as regenerated textile fiber—“representing a loss of more than $100 billion worth of material each year.”

Last year The New Denim Project upcycled 1 million pounds of textile scraps using a fully mechanical process free of chemicals and dyes and without synthetic fabrics blended in, resulting in a compostable yarn free of microplastics. It works with more than 800 Guatemalan artisans practiced in the traditional arts of the hand, foot and backstrap loom, who weave the “new regenerative yarn” into quality one-of-a-kind goods, often in upholstery and home textiles.

Upcycling waste into new consumer products is only half the battle. Part of its mission to “create a shared economy, The New Denim Project partnered with a coffee plantation in the shadows of the Atitlan volcano of the Guatemalan highlands to partake in its fully closed-loop system. The farm mixes the factory’s cotton seed—waste generated during the spinning process—with manure, garden clippings, coffee pulp, wood chips and other kinds of organic residential waste, Engelberg noted. The resulting natural fertilizer nourishes a wealth of crops from coffee and cacao to bamboo, she added.

Closed-loop processes are catching on in the apparel industry, though Engelberg describes upcycling as “just a biomimicry of the way nature and life work.”

“Just as everything on earth is interrelated and everything adds to other living things, the players in this industry must work in the same manner,” she said.

“A sustainable future requires co-creation and creativity and empathy from [everyone in] the industry, and together we must strive for the preservation of this entire ecosystem,” said Engelberg. “We cannot keep abusing the same system that sustains us. And I think all of our business models and systems are a search for this symmetry and this balance.”