Denim Do-Over

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is calling for a revolution of jeans. Outlining specific requirements for “The Jeans Redesign” initiative in a 17-page report released Tuesday, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation — through its Make Fashion Circular initiative — invites brands, retailers and garment manufacturers to participate. Its guidelines build upon pages of research, in-person industry workshops and the insight of more than 40 denim experts.

Already signed on are Gap, H&M Group (through H&M and Weekday brands, a sustainable denim line carried at Asos), Tommy Hilfiger, The Reformation, Lee Jeans, Mud Jeans and others. Endorsement also comes from a handful of clothing recyclers and Fashion Revolution — an advocacy group that popularized the campaign, #whomademyclothes.

A fashion industry at its inflection, “Just as we have seen people move away from owning CDs and DVDs to streaming music and movies, we are seeing huge growth in rental and resale models for fashion,” said Francois Souchet, lead of The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Make Fashion Circular Initiative to WWD. Founded in 2010, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation aims to accelerate the transition to a circular economy, leveraging Make Fashion Circular as an appendage of its larger mission — helping to foster direct collaboration with brands, designers, NGOs and policymakers. 

Consumers demand disclosure on how brands address plastic microfibers, waste, pollution and climate change — all big issues — and the initiative is one that needs many hands. Why not start with denim?

Comparing denim to the industry at large, Souchet sees potential to envision a new circular economy for fashion by drafting off of the denim industry’s recent scalable innovations. Participants are invited to sign the form and openly self-report their progress in bringing redesigned jeans to market by the end of May 2021. This includes the number of jeans produced according to reformed guidelines set by Make Fashion Circular, as well as detailing any accelerating innovations for the industry. Yearly check-ins will be set to ensure standards are met.

H&M sees this project as a “next step” and aims to scale up the learnings from the project in its pursuits to “become fully circular in all our production processes,” a brand spokesperson said to WWD.  

“Jeans started out as a garment created to be durable and withstand the demands of being workwear. But they have become so much more, for so many people,” Souchet said. “But the complex materials and methods used to make them are very wasteful and damaging to the environment, and it means they are very hard to recycle into new jeans,” Souchet reiterated.

Echoing a similar viewpoint on denim’s prominence, Zihaad Wells, vice president of creative and design at AG Jeans, said to WWD, “Denim affects everything and everyone, whether you buy into it or not. The industry has been especially late in keeping up to the standards of today’s consumer, but we’re not far behind.” Wells cites how the consumer is quick to call out brands. “It’s not enough to offer people a limited-time eco-friendly denim capsule. Consumers are smart and they see right through those kinds of marketing ploys,” reiterated Wells. He mentioned renewable energy, water conservation, the use of nontoxic dyes and healthy working conditions, among other desires, as top-of-mind for the consumer, things AG has been working on for a while.

In the business of recycling, Rachel Kibbe, cofounder of Helpsy, a large-scale recycler for textiles, doesn’t believe circular design alone can curb climate change, and she invites the industry to evaluate the circular fashion system by the strength of its ability to “reuse garments as long as possible” designing with deadstock textiles and upcycling top-of-mind, citing a recent report from Quantis. Kibbe believes certain terms can make consumers feel more at ease during a “confusing time for fashion,” but in spite of confusion on labeling, “people are increasingly considering how much they own and how to responsibly part with unwanted clothes.” 

Be it information on material, stone-washing processes or laser-etching finishes, the denim consumer is checking labels and staying informed. For those brands wishing to obtain the stamp of approval — or transparency sanctioned by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation — disclosed on the Make Fashion Circular web site, as well as the physical Jeans Redesign logo on tags — compliance with reporting requirements must be met.

Where previously “take, make, dispose,” the circular economy instead transposes three core principles: design out waste and pollution; keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems. Defining durability, material health (how harmful materials are to the environment and to people), recyclability and traceability (correct labeling and material identification), among other factors — the guidelines act as a minimum standard.

From the Jeans Redesign initiative, both brands and consumers alike benefit from the increased traceability and transparency. Souchet sees it as a “great opportunity for them [brands] to be able to create clarity for customers, and also help them to judge their own ambition level and progress against the rest of the industry.”

Traceability aided through technology, Natasha Franck, founder and chief executive officer, EON (an end-to-end circular platform leveraging Internet-of-things technology in a recent collaboration with Microsoft) and founder of Connect Fashion; calls for global identification to manage products and materials across the life cycle — while offering a heavy value proposition for fashion brands seeking traceable solutions.  

“Global identification of products and materials not only enables us to operationalize circular economy, it also allows for us to solve for the lack of incentives and transparency across business, consumer behavior and policy — essential for fundamental systems change,” Franck said to WWD. Franck also agrees circular fashion systems must go “beyond design-intentions” for full realization, and that the new normal means of ownership — short-term models of use and flexible ownership — require new business models to better serve the consumer, maximize the product value and utilization, and enable sustainable life-cycle management. 

In its guidelines, the Jeans Redesign initiative tackles the entire jeans life cycle, including how easily recycled the jeans are (even detailing the minimal interference of labels and banning or reduction of metal rivets) and what enables the process at scale.  

Although the jeans redesigned through the initiative will face markdowns, as any apparel item after the season’s past, “The guidelines were written so any denim brand could adopt them today,” added Souchet, saying it is “just the start for the Jeans Redesign project.”

Collaboration will be a clear differentiator between the industry’s visionaries and brands lacking foresight. With collaboration between brands and manufacturers, Souchet is hopeful to see that “all jeans are eventually made this way,” increasing quality and use of recycled materials — and decreasing waste.

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