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Why Pangaia’s Recycled Denim Jacket Has ‘No Tradeoffs’

Stacy Flynn wouldn’t have picked denim as her first choice.

This was still in the early days of the partnership between Evrnu, the textile recycling firm she helped found, and Pangaia, a brand-slash-innovation platform that uses a philosophy of “high-tech naturalism” to tackle fashion’s most pressing issues, including resource extraction, pollution and waste.

But denim isn’t the easiest of fabrics, Flynn admitted. “I was like, are you sure you want to go for denim?” she said with a laugh.

Yes, Pangaia was sure, said Amanda Parkes, the company’s chief innovation officer. Even though it’s dabbled with its own Himalayan nettle and hemp pieces, the London-based startup was impressed by the prototype jean Evrnu created with Levi Strauss in 2016 using regenerated post-consumer cotton waste—an industry first. “We picked the fabric we liked most, and their denim is incredibly soft,” she said. And so denim it was.

On Thursday, the companies debuted the payoff of their brokering: an oversized jacket, dubbed Renu, that is the first denim product derived completely from NuCycl, Evrnu’s now-trademarked lyocell fiber. The Seattle-based company uses a mix of pre- and post-consumer textile waste, chemically breaking them down at a polymer level before re-extruding them into filaments that outperform polyester and nylon in terms of tenacity and strength, Flynn said. The resulting yarn can be re-recycled into fibers of similar or better quality using the same closed-loop process up to five times. When the material is completely exhausted, it will biodegrade, returning to the ground as a technical nutrient.

“Recycling is great but it can also go into the bio-cycle,” Parkes said. “So we have both options. Usually [a product] has to go either on the technical side or the natural side.”

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Flynn piped in. “No trade-offs,” she said of the $400 number, which is designed for disassembly, making recapturing its components at the end of its life a cinch. “That is what is key here. We’re really looking at a major technological shift from single-life to multi-life use for textiles.”

Renu, which debuts as part of Pangaia Lab, the brand’s experimental arm, is only the start of the companies’ ambitions. The challenge, however, is scaling up NuCycl. The fiber is currently being churned out in the 1-to-5 metric ton range at Evrnu’s labs in New Jersey and Washington, from where it heads to Turkey to be spun into yarn, and then to Portugal to be woven into cloth and stitched into garments. Evrnu is looking to ramp things up with a commercial-scale facility in North Carolina, which is set to open in the middle of 2024. This is when things will really start cooking. At full throttle, Flynn expects to generate an estimated 17,000 metric tons of the stuff a year. Flush with investor capital—a 2021 round raised $15 million in Series B financing—Evrnu also has its eyes on potential sites on the East and West coasts, as well as in Europe.

“This initial facility is really critical as an industrial proof of concept,” she said.

Pangaia Renu
The jacket, though limited edition, is only the start of a collaboration between Evrnu and Pangaia, the companies said. Courtesy

NuCycl has turned out to be what Pangaia has been looking for. With its work in agricultural waste and alternative plants like seaweed and eucalyptus, the Flwrdwn maker has been making strides in replacing cotton as an input. But the brand still relies on white fluff in its organic, recycled, and soon, regenerative organic forms for good reason. “It’s such an incredible fiber,” Parkes said. “So this is a real kind of breakthrough—a big player giving us sustainable cotton even beyond regenerative; no virgin inputs and that kind of thing.”

Nailing down a lyocell-based jean, however, had its hurdles. Christopher Stanev, Evrnu’s other co-founder, had to essentially “redesign” the fiber to make it look and feel like traditional denim, Flynn said.

“Lyocell has a reputation; if you talk about lyocell in the industry, you automatically think it’s lightweight, it’s shiny and the word feminine comes up a lot,” she said. “Because we’re using cotton instead of trees, we were already starting with something that feels more like cotton.”

Still, denim has certain expectations, many of them culturally entrenched. Stanev experimented with how the filaments were extruded and crimped. The beauty of denim, Flynn said, is how the color chips off. But NuCycl “loves color; it soaks it in,” so tweaks had to be made during the dyeing process as well. All of this took several years to perfect.

The jacket itself is pretty unique, too, Parkes said. It’s classic, a “little elevated” and meant to be something people hold on to longer than a T-shirt. Because Renu is a limited edition, the brand wanted to make something that was “as special as the textile it’s made of.”

Also special: the new Pangaia Lab branding it will feature. Renu boasts a “subtle but iconic” purple tag that all items in the range will carry going forward, Parkes said, giving them a more “luxury category” look. Previous Lab products, which followed a similar small-batch approach, have included circular T-shirts, garments tinted with bacteria-grown dyes and eyewear lenses made partially from carbon dioxide.

These products, she said, are a “little more expensive and experimental” but there’s nothing stopping them from becoming scalable. “This is how we dip our toe before a bigger launch,” Parkes added. Starting small also allows the newly minted B Corp and its partners to work out any potential kinks in a new-ish process.
Flynn admits that the price of NuCycl is a “little crazy” right now because it’s still at lab scale. This will change as production kicks into a higher gear. Once Evrnu starts processing waste on both coasts in a “significant way,” the price will naturally fall. But brands should also look at the cost in a more holistic way, she said. Instead of writing off unsold goods and marking them for destruction, companies can turn them into something else that does sell.

“You have to look at the entire equation which is, where’s the product going? How do you get it back? What are you left with? How do you get that out of the distribution centers and back into the supply chain? And then how does that then link up into the global supply chain for fulfillment for the next generation of products,” Flynn said. “It’s a juggernaut of a problem but it’s one that we’ve got to stay focused on. We’re going to actually create a supply chain.”