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Will Looser Fits Unlock More Opportunities for Sustainable Denim?

It took wearing sweatpants every day for almost a full year and a viral social media movement to dethrone the skinny jean from its position as a top-selling denim silhouette. The pandemic-triggered shift to more comfortable apparel, combined with younger generations’ aversion to body-hugging denim, have put a spotlight on looser denim fits.

And while this may spur many to reconsider their current wardrobe, it also opens a realm of opportunities for added sustainability—a quality that younger generations can agree upon. According to a recent Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor survey, 35 percent of millennial respondents and 36 percent of Gen Z respondents say they seek out clothing labeled as “sustainable” or “environmentally friendly.” Fortunately, rigid fabrics may be just what the environment needs.

The stretch fabric required of skinny silhouettes often contains plastic-derived fibers such as polyester—elements that can damage the environment during production, at home in the wash, and in the landfill at the end of its lifecycle. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Jeans Redesign program, which launched in 2019 as a way to advocate for circular design in the denim industry, could be influencing brands to add more non-stretch to their denim. The guidelines set by the program include jeans with a maximum of 2 percent synthetic material.

According to denim development consultant Salli Deighton, looser fits made with rigid fabrics can be an environmentally friendlier fashion choice if certain factors are considered.

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“Rigid denim can deliver more efficiency in production and reduce waste, and it is easier to manage through all operations from weaving, to cutting and sewing,” she said. “Creating circular jeans and zero waste pattern cutting is also much easier with rigid fabrics because the elasticity and shrinkage is not an issue. But we need to consider the fiber choices for the rigid fabric.”

Traditionally, rigid non-stretch denim was constructed of 100 percent cotton, a fiber that carries its own environmental pitfalls, as cotton is a water-intensive crop that can require harmful pesticides to grow. Today, there’s an array of eco-friendly alternatives for non-stretch denim, including organic cotton, pre- and post-consumer cotton, cellulosic fibers such as Tencel and Spinnova, hemp and more.

Last month, Levi’s Wellthread debuted a collection featuring a jean with 55 percent hemp, touting more sustainability benefits thanks to the crop’s regenerative properties. The team spent years developing cottonized hemp for a lightweight, soft handfeel that lends well to its looser fits. Denim mills are also ramping up their production of hemp-blended denim, including AGI Denim, Naveena and Crescent Bahuman Limited.

Experts discuss how the shift away from skinny jeans and toward looser fits may open new opportunities for more sustainable denim.
Levi’s Wellthread Courtesy

Similarly, sustainable brands such as Boyish Jeans and Triarchy have doubled down on Tencel and Tencel x Refibra lyocell for the fibers’ closed-loop production processes and the velvety soft texture that it adds to denim.

Aside from having access to a wide selection of sustainable fibers, non-stretch denim could also present more opportunities for easier recycling. Fabrics that are blended with synthetic fibers are the toughest to recycle, said Jaclyn Allen, Guess director of corporate sustainability. As a result, skinny jeans pose the risk of ending up in a landfill where they could emit harmful methane gases as the plastic breaks down, or are burned and releases toxic fumes.

“A skinny fit denim has to have some kind of synthetic material [to stretch] but if it’s more rigid, then you don’t need that synthetic piece and more of the jean can be natural fibers which makes it easier to recycle,” Allen said.

Even rigid denim made with the appropriate blend of organic and recycled fibers could include other elements that are damaging to the environment. During the weaving process for example, Deighton noted that Polyvinyl Alcohol (PVA)—a synthetic polymer that can wreak havoc on the environment—is commonly used on the fibers as a sizing and fixing agent.

“Rigid denims are easier to manage and engineer sustainably but they are not necessarily more sustainable than a stretch denim. We must also remember the pocketing, labels and all trims,” said Deighton, adding that sewing threads are often core spun, spun poly or recycled polyester, which will not biodegrade.

Trim companies, however, are responding to the call for sustainability with solutions of their own. Last summer, Italian trims manufacturer Cadica Group launched “The New Normal Collection,” a range of recycled and organic trims featuring 100 percent biodegradable and compostable products, as well as soluble accessories that dissolve in water. Global trims supplier YKK also recently launched a collection of sustainable solutions in its Spring/Summer 2022 line, including taping made of recycled polyester yarn, environmentally friendly finishing for snaps and buttons, and a recyclable zipper.

Vintage resurgence

As more consumers shift to looser fits, they may turn to more sustainable methods of consumption. The secondhand market has been gaining momentum as sustainability concerns have shifted to the forefront. And according to Mark Ix, Advance Denim’s director of marketing, North America, the loose denim trend will only amplify the movement.

“The baggier silhouette trend will affect the vintage market in a positive way,” he said. “You will see more vintage shoppers buying wider leg vintage jeans.”

Brands are responding to this shift with their own spin on vintage, with Diesel launching a new collection that updates iconic denim from its expansive archive. Other brands like Guess and  Levi’s are adding resale to their business model. At the end of last year, Guess debuted Guess Vintage, an online program of exclusive hand-picked certified vintage Guess goods that launched with 68 authenticated pieces spanning men’s and women’s vintage garments designed in Los Angeles between 1981 and 1999.

But it’s difficult to say whether the vintage denim craze started in response to the shift to loose denim or vice versa. Denim designer Anne Oudard thinks it’s the latter. She noted that fashion has long seen a ’90s resurgence, which has put the spotlight on rigid denim.

“It is the synchronicity of this ’90s trend and our strong environmental concerns that enables the rise of a new generation of durable rigid jeans,” she said. “And hopefully, these jeans will be of such great quality that they’ll age beautifully and become fabulous secondhand pieces.”

Sustainable stretch denim

But this doesn’t mean that all consumers will ditch their skinny jeans, or that all stretch denim poses a threat to the planet.

“Rigid fabric is overall more sustainable than stretch fabrics. However, this doesn’t mean that if you are wearing power-stretch jeans, you are doing harm to the environment,” said Tolga Ozkurt, Calik Denim’s deputy general manager of sales and marketing. “A stretchy jean can be just as sustainable as a rigid fabric if the right raw materials are used.”

Last year, the Turkish denim mill introduced its E-Denim technology increasing its total recycled content rate to 50 percent in stretch fabrics and promoting much-needed circularity.

Experts discuss how the shift away from skinny jeans and toward looser fits may open new opportunities for more sustainable denim.
Candiani Coreva Stretch Courtesy

Another sustainable stretch solution is Candiani Denim’s Coreva Stretch technology, which features organic cotton wrapped around a natural rubber core, replacing common synthetic and petrol-based elastomers with a plant-based component that maintains elasticity and recovery.

Innovations in stretch denim have proven that sustainability is not necessarily silhouette-driven, and they’ve inspired adoption from brands such as Triarchy, which had previously stopped using stretch fabrics because of their environmental impact. The brand was one of the first to implement Coreva technology. Invista also offers sustainable stretch solutions with its Lycra T400 with Ecomade fiber, which contains 50 percent recycled PET and 18 percent plant-based material.

And there are still ways to cut corners with rigid denim. Though Jordan Nodarse, founder of ethical denim brand Boyish Jeans, is an outspoken champion of rigid, plastic-free denim, he warns that brands may still miss the mark in terms of sustainability when designing looser fits. He noted that brands could opt to use 100 percent conventional virgin cotton, an arguably less sustainable—but more affordable—option than incorporating a percentage of recycled cotton and cellulosic fibers.

“[Overall], rigid denim is still more sustainable than stretch jeans, and much easier for recyclers to upcycle into new materials,” he said.