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Sustainable denim is coming, a game-changer for sourcing and manufacturing - Q&A with a denim expert

March 20, 2024

In conversation with Laura Vicaria, a sustainable denim expert running her consultancy firm 'Rethink Fashion'. She’s also involved in the biggest, succesful sustainable denim project of the moment. Originally the Dutch C-233 Green Deal on Circular Denim, the pact among mills, manufacturers, and brands is expanding globally, potentially reshaping sourcing and manufacturing. We asked Laura for insights. What can brands and manufacturers expect from sustainable denim?

What are the sustainable denim innovations of the moment?

There is momentum around the use of recycled cotton. Circularity is trending, and the biggest challenge is how to recycle, especially fabrics with mixed blends. Most of the denim on the market consists of stretchy blends of elastane and cotton. We must figure out how to reverse that, so we can have the polyester and a cellulose fiber separated. Very few folks can do that, and there is little action because those reverse supply chains are currently not in place. We also must think about circularity beyond recycling – how to extend the life of a product. Brands mostly jump straight to recycling, but there's a lot more that we can do.

How do you look back at the evolution of sustainable denim?

When I started working in circularity and sustainability in 2019 for MUD Jeans, people were very skeptical. The brand was trying to drive change, but nobody really understood it: what on earth are they doing taking back their “leased” jeans and launching a vintage section? Is that even financially possible? It looked impossible to scale. But then, suddenly other brands started rental programs and changed their production. H&M invested in Looper to improve collecting and sorting to facilitate recycling, using more recycled content, and they started a rental platform. It’s about those doors opening and merging people and ideas that create momentum.

What are some noteworthy innovations in sustainable denim?

Reverse Resources digitizes textile waste flows, tracing waste from collection to fiber opener, enabling tailored fabric production. Eeden separates poly from cellulose, making previously non-recyclable fabrics reusable. MUD Jeans innovatively combines mechanical and chemical recycling to create durable, post-consumer recycled cotton jeans. These advancements are crucial for scaling successful reverse supply chains and enhancing sustainability in the denim industry.

What is needed to scale these solutions as soon as possible?

To become circular and achieve textile-to-textile recycling, there needs to be collaboration with key value chain partners. There is a lot of secrecy around product and process specifications, technical aspects, and operational elements because it makes companies competitive. But if you're vulnerable, you're more likely to have smart people chip in and help you find solutions.

What about Denim Deal 2.0?

We want to create one billion pair of jeans containing at least 20% post-consumer recycled cotton. We’ll take the approach from the Dutch version and copy-paste it onto other locations where we’ll create regional hubs, starting with EEMEA. The Netherlands remains the international hub to orchestrate the deal, but each region will have its own targets to achieve. We're busy with the set-up and funding and already have 25 members. Many individuals, brands and innovators are interested to join. We’re looking at a hands-on platform beyond the theoretical, with concrete pilots to bring solutions to the industry.

What skills or positions are vital for the durable denim journey?

Denim designers and product developers with circularity skills. We need people that know how to design for circularity, for example by using fabrics with recycled content. They're also likely to see the gaps that people like me don’t see. I think it will come with time. Universities and fashion schools are already picking up on this need.

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