Here at Denim Dudes we try to make a positive difference in the supply chain. By using our voices to spread the word on new technologies and championing the brands that are leading the way in the sustainable field we’re hoping to shift awareness. But it’s no secret that the denim industry is a dirty business and has a long way to go. The vast amount of water, chemicals and energy that goes into the lifecycle of a pair of jeans; from growing the cotton through to the dyeing process and manufacturing has a detrimental impact on the environment. A quick google search on “the lifecycle of a jean” will retrieve some eye-opening stats on the scale of the problem. Nearly 3,800 liters of water used and 33.4 kilograms of carbon dioxide emitted per jean to be specific.

If that’s not enough, there’s also the growing issue around the amount of apparel waste being discarded by consumers each year. According to The Global Fashion Agenda, 73% of the world’s clothing eventually ends up in landfills. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s recent research paper, A New Textiles Economy points out that this is due to the linear system of ‘take, make, dispose’ in which fashion is primarily produced today. Here raw materials are extracted, manufactured into commercial goods and then bought, used and eventually discarded by consumers, after which the materials are mostly sent to landfill or incinerated.

Slow Down: Vetements recycling dump window installation at Harrods in February 2018 aims to speak to people about the problem of overconsumption and overproduction

The key motive of Macarthur’s New Textile Economy is its vision to develop a new system for textile building on circular economy principles of restoration and regeneration. This ‘closing the loop’ model is rooted in reuse, eradicating waste by breaking down products at the end of their life cycle and turning them into the building blocks of new products, continuing the cycle as many times as possible.

While implementing a circular fashion system may have once seemed far-fetched, today it’s becoming urgent. Population growth and the inevitable spike in consumption that will follow is set to have a detrimental impact on the environment. But the shift to a circular system is not only an environmental imperative. The fashion industry is currently placing little focus on the business opportunities that lie for instance in the end of use phase of the value chain. According to Macarthur’s report, more than USD 500 billion of value is lost every year due to clothing underutilisation and the lack of recycling.

“To have the circular economy be a virtue, we have to have goods and services. Not bads and services. We need to have goods in the first instance. So let’s design things that are good, then circulate them.” – William McDonough, chief executive, McDonough Innovation (CRADLE TO CRADLE)

New business models and existing solutions focused on design, longevity, collection and recycling are currently being explored and an increasing number find ways to get scaled and prove the business and brand value at hand. At the same time circularity has become an industry buzzword that has been announced as the answer to all sustainability challenges with less commitment to real change. So what does circularity actually mean today and how do we get from hype to real business?

Passionate Industry Pioneer: Stellar McCartney discusses sustainability at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit

Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to attend this years Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the world’s leading business event on sustainability in fashion. The 2018 summit was supported by passionate industry pioneers, The Danish Fashion Institute, whose 2018 CEO Agenda provided a backbone list of 7 priorities every CEO in fashion needs to prioritise to future-proof their company. Of those 7, circularity was listed as one of four fundamental priorities for real transformation in the fashion industry and was tackled in the deep dive session called, Business Models For A Closed Loop Fashion System. During the 45-minute talk 5 expert panelists, each of which are currently providing scalable solutions in circularity, hashed out some of the challenging questions in this arena and how the industry can move from talk to action. One of the key points that came out of the talk was that the industry must begin with sustainable materials and design; a business model that allows for renewal, and the operational capacity to carry out the task. “To have the circular economy be a virtue, we have to have goods and services. Not bads and services. We need to have goods in the first instance,” said panelist William McDonough, chief executive, McDonough Innovation (CRADLE TO CRADLE). “So let’s design things that are good, then circulate them.”

Some denim businesses are already adopting a range of initiatives to shift the way they source raw materials, and alter how they design, manufacture, transport, retail, recover and recycle their goods. Levi’s have sought to design sustainability into many of their products. This year we reported on the original jeans brand new FLX technology which uses automated wash processes that skip sampling, reducing resources and carbon emissions, and increase speed to market by three to six months. And then later on in the summer the brand explored the value opportunities in re-commerce, a sustainable model of keeping existing clothing in use, with the launch of Levi’s Authorized Vintage. The brand purchased over 10,000 units of vintage Levi’s denim items which are now sold in its specialist retail outlets for between $100-$500 depending on rarity and era. And here’s some more food for thought. There’s a saying in the denim world that says there is enough vintage Levi’s in the world for Levi’s to never produce again. Recently there have been whispers in the vintage community that Levi’s are buying up more stock around the world, so it will be interesting to see how they scale the model into their business in the future and whether some of this will replace new product.

Whats Old is New Again: In 2017 Levi’s purchased 20,000 pairs of vintage Levi’s jeans which it now sells in its stores as part of its Authorized Vintage Programme

In February 2018, G-Star launched what it called ‘The most sustainable jean in the world’ featuring the first-ever Cradle to Cradle Certified Gold Raw for the Planet Indigo Fabric. The fabric uses DyStar’s and Artistic Milliners’ revolutionary indigo dye technology which uses 70% fewer chemicals and no salts, meaning it produces no salt by-product during the reduction and dyeing method – which saves water and leaves what water does remain clean and recyclable. In addition to the denim, the new designs are crafted from 100% organic cotton, and are renewable right down to their eco-finished metal buttons. In an interview with Dazed, Frouke Bruinsma, G-Star’s corporate responsibility director said:

“Sustainability is really part of who and what we are. If you want to be here for the next 50-100 years, you need to look at the impact you make on the planet.”

Other businesses have focused on more downstream initiatives like garment recycling. Brands like Mud Jeans have been successful at incentivising consumers to recycle goods with store vouchers and other rewards. Mud Jeans has crafted a business model based on selling or renting jeans, taking them back at the end of their life and then recycling old jeans into new ones. 36 of Mud Jeans’ 40- plus styles are up to 40% post-consumer recycled cotton – twice the industry average. On a larger scale, H&M has adopted a similar model with its Garment Collection initiative, which has since collected 39,000 tonnes of clothing since it launched in 2013. Last year, the Swedish fast-fashion giant expanded this campaign launched through its Bring It garment recovery campaign, with the aim of recycling 25,000 tonnes of clothing a year.

One of the other major issues mass-market brands are facing today is deadstock, driven largely by overproduction as well as customer return stock that is unsellable. Positive movements include Burberry’s recent announcement that they have stopped burning unwanted clothes and bags in what was called a ‘bonfire of the vanities’ to prevent them from being sold cheaply and harming the brand. The move was welcomed by Greenpeace as a much-needed sign of change in the fashion industry but there is still long way to go to improve higher ethical standards across the fast-fashion and luxury sector.

Green Jean: In February 2018 G-Star RAW launched what it called the world’s most sustainable denim

Jeff Denby, co-founder of The Renewal Workshop, a new kind of apparel company that makes waste apparel and textiles into something new, is one of the entrepreneurs that is pioneering scalable solutions for brands suffering in the area of reducing waste. The Renewal Workshop partners with apparel brands to refurbish their unsellable returns and excess inventory at its own state-of-the-art factory in Oregon, creating the category of renewed apparel. This product is then either sold through the original brand’s sales channels, or it is sold through The Renewal Workshop’s website. For any product that can’t be renewed, it is responsibly managed into upcycling, or recycling in order to optimise the resources already invested in them.

“do not produce anything new, but instead transform what already exists” – Maurizio Donadi, Atelier Repairs

Sébastien Fabre, the prominent entrepreneur and CEO of leading resale social shopping site Vestiaire Collective has been lauded for his creative start-up, which has turned secondhand into a thriving business. The platform promotes reuse as a key pillar in driving sustainability in the fashion industry. At the heart of Vestiaire, lies the belief that fashion can and should be a smart investment, expanding the lifespan of a product is the key to thoughtful consumption.

Connecting sustainability with creativity, LA-based brand Atelier & Repairs takes principles of the circular economy by up-cycling and transforming the forgotten and the ordinary into unique, one-of-a-kind items. Their mission is “do not produce anything new, but instead transform what already exists”. Their eclectic fusion of vintage garments and deadstock fabrics; think military cargo pants patched with Hawaiian florals or classic shirts reimagined into kimonos, have caught the eye of big name stores and boutiques like Barney’s NY, Fred Segal in LA and United Arrows in Japan. Founder Maurizio Donadi, a veteran in the denim world, was inspired to start this renewal process through his experience in the fashion industry and distress at the sheer magnitude of waste and challenges surrounding it. Now after 2 years in business, operating out of Los Angeles and London, Donadi is proving the scalability of his circular system. Donadi hopes Atelier & Repairs will inspire creativity and sustainability by raising awareness about the issue of overproduction.

ReGen: Candiani’s innovative new fabric comprises 50% Refibra and 50% pre- consumer recycled cotton with no trace of fresh, raw cotton used in the denim

And its not falling on dead ears, denim providers are helping brands like Atelier Repairs to achieve their recycling goals. Earlier this year Donadi teamed up with Italian denim purveyors Candiani to bring to life their latest fabric technology, Re-Gen denim, which comprises 50% Refibra and 50% pre- consumer recycled cotton with no trace of fresh, raw cotton used in the denim. Meanwhile Pakistani mill and garment maker, Artistic Milliners is one of the first providers to embark on a closed loop denim manufacturing project with I:CO. According to Rivet magazine the project involves the annual production of 12 million meters of closed loop denim. Artistic Milliners purchases post-consumer materials from I:CO, shreds its down to cotton fibers that are processed to form yarn then made into recycled fabric.

“If 6 out of 10 garments we produce end up in a landfill or incinerated within the first year of production, should we have made those six?” – Paul Dillinger of Levi’s

Likewise Guatemalan denim provider, The New Denim Project (who we previously mentioned in our Study Hall LA article) has been making ground with its visionary eco industrial production that is based on the concept of eliminating waste. Yarns are spun from pre-consumer industrial waste that is captured from various textile mills, and woven into new upcycled natural textiles that are chemical-free, dye-free and uses minimal water and energy to produce. Their production is all created within a closed-loop system, where waste from their upcycling process is later donated to coffee-growers to use as compost to grow specialty coffee in the highlands of Guatemala.

While there have been vast improvements in recycling, there will always be an offset, whether it be through the use of fossil fuels in the collection processes, or the inevitable use of virgin materials to re-spin the yarn. What’s more, each time a recycled product is broken down with the circular system, the materials slowly degrade as they are downgraded in recycling processes from clothes to car seats and further.

One of the biggest challenges for the industry is thinking about how to confront the elephant in the room and questioning how do we stop consumption. During a panel talk at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit Paul Dillinger of Levi’s delivered one of the most powerful messages of the 2-day event by saying “If 6 out of 10 garments we produce end up in a landfill or incinerated within the first year of production, should we have made those six? … What moral excuse do I have to be making these 6 extraneous things that are going to be thrown away when four is good enough, and how much better would could the four have been if the six had never been made?”

Triple R Concept: Nudie Jeans approaches circularity through its concept of repair, re-use and recycle

Nudie Jeans, which generates about €55 million in annual sales though the sale of 1 million jeans a year, offers life-long guarantees for its core product through repair (the company conducts over 44,000 repairs a year). But the Swedish brand admits that they cannot do this alone. In an interview with Fashion United last year CEO Palle Stenberg commented that making the denim industry more sustainable has nothing to do with consumers buying behaviour. “The problem today is not that people buy jeans, the problem is that people throw them away.” With this story, Stenberg makes clear that the durable usage of jeans is also beneficial for consumers. It sounds contradictory, a brand that wants their jeans to last as long as possible, but still, the company’s annual revenue speaks volumes. Stenberg hopes its repair stores act as an ambassador for the denim industry and show other brands that things can be done differently.

With labels like Nudie Jeans pioneering and significant improvements being made throughout the denim supply chain, there are reasons to be positive – if not complacent. The fashion industry has been slow to move towards higher ethical standards, but its exposure as the second most polluting industry after oil, has urged a greater momentum and activity over the past 18 months; and it is begging to feel like its finally happening in the sector now.

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Denim trend consultant, owner of @samutaro