The Future of Denim

May 9, 2017

By incorporating circular economy principles, the denim industry can become the sustainable, circular leader to spearhead a textiles revolution.

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Denim is loved across ages, genders, countries and styles. It’s the undisputed champion of garments. In the past however, the denim industry has been a large consumer of water, insecticides, pesticides, and energy as well as uses harmful chemicals in the dying/finishing processes. Now, with the incorporation of circular economy principles, the denim industry can become the sustainable, circular leader to spearhead a textiles revolution.

Starting on the 17th of April, Amsterdam turned blue for an entire week. The city hosted ‘Denim Days‘, a series of industry events, trade shows, seminars and a denim festival centred around the ever-popular indigo blue fabric. Our own Jade Wilting (Project Coordinator Circle Textiles Programme) spoke at The Blue Print Festival, on the future of denim, and explored the question, is there a future for denim without circularity?

We see that while the denim industry as a whole has yet to become circular, competitive companies are moving in the right direction, with some frontrunners already firmly rooting their business models in circularity. We’ve collected 3 key insights about this transition below:

Insight #1: The skinny on skinny jeans
From stretch denim to rigid & raw

We are happy to see skinny jeans slowly making an exit from the wardrobes of the masses – if not for their unforgiving silhouette, then for their stretchiness, which is a major barrier when it comes to circularity”

Jade Wilting, Project Coordinator Textiles Programme

While we don’t condone quick changing trends that create obsolete fashion monthly, we can’t help but get excited about a growing demand for mono-material jeans and raw denim.

Raw denim is the godfather of all denim. It is unwashed and characterized by its rigid structure and deep blue colour. In contrast, most of the jeans that we buy have been through a series of industrial washings to soften and add aesthetic effects to the trousers. Raw denim aficionados swear off washing their trousers for at least the first 6 months after purchase to get a natural fade, custom-made by one’s own wearing. As you might have guessed, raw denim jeans need much less water in the production process, and the culture around raw denim lends itself perfectly to circularity. It’s all about retaining the value of the jeans for as long as possible through repair, re-wear and less washing.

The movement toward non-stretch, rigid denim is a move in the right direction when it comes to circularity.

Insight #2: Salvage the Selvedge
The latest development in closed loop denim

“Denim to denim has long been the holy grail of high-value recycling. Not only is it a compelling story for the consumer, but recycled denim also has the potential to offset the huge water impact that denim has, reutilise the indigo dye trapped in the material and reduce our dependency on virgin cotton.”

Gwen Cunningham, Programme Lead, Circle Textiles Programme

MUD Jeans

Our hope for the future is for textiles to be consistently made, used, collected and reintroduced into the supply chain as raw material. In order to reach this goal, denim can’t be thrown away once it is deemed unfit to rewear.  From a recyclers point of view, denim is an ideal material feedstock, as it’s fairly consistent in colour (indigo blue), fibre composition (chiefly cotton) and construction (zippers and buttons are consistently on the top third of the garment, which makes cleaning more efficient).

More recently, MUD Jeans and Recover, collaborated to turn old MUD jeans into new MUD jeans. They have pushed innovation to new heights by working to increase the percentage of recycled cotton that can be used to 40%. Previous research conducted by Circle Economy and G-Star showed that by including 12% recycled content in a pair of jeans, water usage decreased by 9.8%, energy consumption by 4.2% and the CO2 footprint by 3.8%. Just imagine what the impact would be with 40%, or even more, recycled content!

 

Meanwhile, upcoming chemical recyclers are also experimenting with closed loop denim. Levi Strauss and Evrnu, a start-up chemical recycling technology company, have collaborated to turn post-consumer cotton waste into new denim. Using Evrnu’s unique chemical process, cotton fibres are dissolved and reconstituted, before being spun into new yarn and made into new fabric.

Insight #3: Cleaning up our act
The new production methods that improve impact  

Denim uses a ton of water in its lifecycle. According to Levi Strauss, 3,781 liters of water are used during the production and use phase of one pair of 501® jeans and 33.4 kg of CO2 is created throughout its lifetime. This includes growing cotton, processing the denim and washing at home. Minimizing these impacts requires  producers to improve technology and consumers to think about how they care for their denim. MADE-BY created a wet processing benchmark that details the impacts from commonly used processing techniques and brings understanding and awareness to the impacts of this step in textile production.

Stemming from the insights companies such as Jeanologia, a partner of MUD Jeans, have developed an Ozone technology that can be used in place of water intensive stone washing,  drastically reducing the water, energy, and chemical usage in the processing phase of jean production. The result is worn or faded looks without the negative environmental or health impacts.

Consistent colouration of recycled denim can be difficult to achieve and requires additional energy and water. Australian researchers have created a way to make denim-dyed denim, with help from the H&M Foundation to scale and commercialize this technology to use recycled denim as a dye source.

Wondering what you can do as a consumer? We’ve got you covered!

    1. Buy vintage, raw, or mono-materials. Raw denim is 100% cotton and uses far less water and chemicals during production. Mono-materials (e.g. 100% cotton) ensure that the textile can undergo high-value recycling after you are done with them..
    2. Ask for recycled content. Brands are looking for signals from the market to incorporate recycled content. Ask for it, and when it’s available, buy it.
    3. Wash less! You don’t need to wash your jeans every time you wear them. If you’ve worn them a couple of times but they are clean of stains, leave them in the freezer overnight to kill germs.
    4. Repair. Fix your jeans! Brands like Nudie Jeans offer to repair your jeans for you, and YouTube tutorials on how to fix your jeans are plentiful.
    5. Send your old jeans for reuse or recycling! Some brands will take items back themselves, but if in doubt, donate to them your local charity shop or drop them in your local collection bin.  

The denim industry has come a long way. Technological advancements continue to decrease its impact, but the next steps require the industry to adopt a more circular model. It is important to remember that true circularity requires thinking beyond decreasing the impact and  considering how design, repairability, and recycling can play a role in circularity.


Industry collaboration is key in catalyzing and implementing systemic change. Circle Economy, together with the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, House of Denim and MADE-BY are fostering collaboration through the Alliance for Responsible Denim, an initiative that brings denim brands together to collectively take steps towards improving the ecological sustainability impact of denim production.


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