Recover, chief sustainability officer
Hélène Smits
Recover, chief sustainability officer

Deep Dive

Hélène Smits’ passion for developing a circular fashion economy began to percolate in 2014, when she found herself in a warehouse filled with discarded clothes. The scene stirred up a motivation to find more sustainable pathways for dealing with textile waste, which often ends up in landfills or incinerators. 

“In that moment I realized there must be a better way of organizing this—a smarter way,” Smits said, who now serves as Recover’s chief sustainability officer. That means closing the loop and making new fabrics from old, used and discarded ones. “Since then, it has been my personal and professional mission to develop new approaches and models that contribute to a circular, zero waste textile industry,” she said. 

Cotton recycling body Recover is an ideal home for Smits to achieve her goal. The company is making inroads in the denim industry, introducing its RDenim circular fiber—made from old jeans—to fashion firms and fabric mills across the globe, from Artistic Denim Mills to Kontoor Brands, Tommy Hilfiger and G-Star Raw. In June, the company received a $100 million investment to scale its circular solutions.

What do you wish more consumers knew about the jeans they buy?

How many resources—water, land, chemicals, energy—it takes to make one pair of jeans. It would be great if consumers knew more about the environmental footprint of denim. Consumers hold the power with what they choose to buy or not buy, and I truly believe that sustainable [purchasing] behavior starts with education and awareness.

There are many brands out there that offer more sustainable or circular options for denim, like DL1961 and Revolve who created recycled denim collections with Recover fiber. The beauty of denim is that it can be relatively easily recycled and it’s great to see that the share of denims in the market with recycled content is growing. Consumers can contribute to this movement not only by buying recycled denim styles, but also by making sure to bring their jeans to a textile collection scheme when they are done wearing it, so that the denim can be recycled.

If you had one request for denim brands, what would that be?

I would like to take this opportunity to do a call to action to brands, retailers and designers to embrace post-consumer recycled denim and circular design of denim. To make denim circular we need both. We need circular design to make sure that the denims we create now can be recycled in the future. At the same time, we need brands to adopt recycled content into their denim products—something that is already perfectly possible right now.

The issue that I see with the latter is that brands and designers are expecting recycled to be identical to virgin, and this is not always possible especially with post-consumer recycled denim. You can create beautiful high quality denim with recycled fibers; many brands have already proven that. Many issues can be tackled by making the right choices in the manufacturing process, but I would say it’s even more a matter of perception. It would be amazing if we can perceive the small imperfections that can come with recycled material (especially products made with post-consumer recycled content) as a positive quality rather than a burden. Can we regard recycled as unique, rather than defective? Can we make consumers part of this story and transfer these values to them?

I see this as a great creative opportunity and happy to see more brands also embracing this perspective. The denim community should and will always keep pushing to innovate and make products look better, but wouldn’t it be great if we can at the same time cultivate a style ideal that celebrates the uniqueness of true circular denim?

What can other apparel categories learn from the denim industry?

Denim is very much a frontrunner in sustainability, which I hope other apparel categories can learn from. I believe this has multiple reasons, one being that the supply chain for denim is more transparent. I haven’t met any brand that didn’t know who their fabric mills were for denim. This is not always the case for other categories. Because of this, you can really see an element of competition at the level of mills regarding bringing sustainable fibers and other innovations to the market. Sustainability and circularity in denim has quickly become the way to stand out and it’s also something that makers and designers of denim are visibly proud of. It’s a race to the top which I hope will continue and can further inspire other categories.

What was your most recent denim purchase?

I don’t buy denim often, because if they fit well and are good quality, they last very long. My latest purchase was probably a black denim from Tenue de Nimes. It’s a rigid denim. It took a little while to be comfortable, but I truly love it. From a circularity perspective, I’m a big advocate of non-stretch jeans.

What is your first denim memory?

My mother used to wear oversized denim shirts when I was a little girl. In my memory, I can see her wearing this and dancing around the living room on my birthday. Some years ago, I found an oversized Levi’s denim shirt in a secondhand shop and had to buy it because of the nostalgia.