Rivet Denim Sustainability Report

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ETERNAL The denim industry continues to push toward a circular economy to eliminate waste and overconsumption. w o rds _____ JASMI N MA L I K C H UA



ew garments are as tailor-made for the circular economy as denim. When Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss invented rivet-reinforced blue jeans as we know them in 1850s San Francisco, they conceived of them as workwear for prospectors in the grip of the gold rush. For circularity pundits, who want to keep resources in circulation as long as possible, denim is the antithesis of throwaway fashion that is worn fleetingly and then chucked aside. “Denim was always meant to be lasting,” said Marisa Ma, co-founder of Atelier & Repairs, a Los Angeles-based firm that creates one-of-a-kind clothing from castoff textiles and trims. “No employer of miners wanted their jeans to rip, so everything was created for enduring use.” But denim’s hard-as-nails construction can also work against it. The same rivets that prevent tearing, for instance, are difficult for recyclers to remove and result in large swathes of fabric being cut off and landfilled or incinerated at the end of jeans’ life. Modern-day consumers prefer denim with a little bit of stretch, which means mixing cotton yarns with small amounts of Spandex or Lycra. Because blended fibers are nearly impossible to tease apart into their original constituents, “this really severely impacts the recyclability of the garment,” said Jade Wilting, partnership and community manager of Circle Economy’s textile program in Amsterdam. Neither have take-back programs or recycling techniques achieved the breadth of scale necessary to channel unwanted jeans into new apparel manufacturing and other high-value applications. At present, most garments that cannot be reused are “downcycled” into rags, upholstery stuffing and housing insulation. “Some chemical recycling technologies are out there, but they are still not optimized to handle the waste we currently have because this waste was never designed to be reused in the first place,” said Adriana Galijasevic, G-Star Raw’s denim and sustainability expert. For people like Ma, downcycling denim is almost criminal. “There was a purpose and a reason for why it was designed the way it was,” she said. “But that’s the biggest riddle of all: How do we encourage longevity with today’s business metrics?” To be sure, circularity in any industry, denim or otherwise, is an uphill task. Most modern supply chains are based on a linear take-make-dispose model. “It’s not easy retrofitting needed infrastructure,” said Roian Atwood, senior director of global sustainable business at Kontoor Brands, which operates Lee and Wrangler. But denim can be the poster child for circular fashion. It just needs a few nudges in the right direction. “Denim can be a circular product if it’s designed to last for a long time, if it’s made with great materials and if it’s made so that it can be made 2019 DENIM REPORT


again into a new garment,” said Francois Souchet, Make Fashion Circular lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. In July, the U.K. nonprofit launched Jeans Redesign, an initiative that is rallying brands such as C&A, Gap, H&M, Lee, Outerknown and Tommy Hilfiger to tackle the waste and pollution in denim production today. Initial guidelines have called for the removal (or at least minimization) of rivets in favor of tack stitching, a material composition that is at least 98 percent cellulose fibers by weight and components that are easy to remove or disassemble. “Our aim is to use the learnings from this project in a bigger scale in our way to become fully circular in all our production processes,” a spokesperson for H&M said. “We see participating in this project as a next step in our already extensive work in applying circular-economy principles in our business, all the way from the design stage, use of materials and production until the final product reaches our customers and the product-use stage.” There have already been efforts to create more circular denim. H&M has been incorporating recovered cotton from its garment-takeback program into select items since 2015. Three years later, C&A and G-Star Raw