Jeans Are Getting More Sustainable

Several brands have launched styles adhering to the Jeans Redesign guidelines, with more to come.

stack of folded jeans

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Last year the Ellen MacArthur Foundation released a set of guidelines called "Jeans Redesign." Written for denim manufacturers, it lays out suggestions for making the world's most popular pants more sustainable. These guidelines include:

  • Designing so that a pair of jeans can withstand at least 30 washes (some critics say this sets the bar far too low)
  • The garment includes clear product care information on labels
  • Contains at least 98 percent cellulose fibers made from regenerative, organic or transitional farming methods
  • Does not use hazardous chemicals, conventional electroplating, stone finishing, sandblasting, or potassium permanganate in finishing
  • Does not contain metal rivets (or keeps these to a minimum)
  • Jeans are easy to disassemble for recycling
  • Information easily available regarding each component of the garment

When Treehugger first reported on these guidelines in 2019, they were brand new and had not yet been applied practically. But over the past year, the companies that pledged initial support have been working hard to turn them into reality. There are nearly 70 participants in total, and now this fall several companies have launched jeans for sale that adhere to the guidelines, proving that this can work. From a press release:

"Brands including Boyish, H&M, seventy + mochi, Triarchy and Weekday have launched jeans based on circular economy principles set out in the guidelines. Dozens more, including GAP, Reformation, Lee, and Wrangler, are set to launch their own products in the coming months. These new jeans have been designed to last longer, be easily recycled, and are made in ways that are better for the environment and the health of garment workers."

A five-minute documentary on YouTube (see below) outlines the process to date, and how the above-mentioned brands have approached their own jean redesigns. They share a collective sense of frustration with the fashion industry's current "take, make, waste" approach – "Take from the earth, make a product, and waste it" – and a strong sense of obligation to reverse it. 

As Kelly Slater, founder of Outerknown, says in the video, "You can build things in a great way with a good cause and a good intention, but at the end of the day, if it ends up in landfill, then there is a problem." He's right, which is why each of the participating brands has a program to receive used items at the end of their life, to recycle and repurpose into new denim.

When Treehugger asked the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for more details on how that recycling will occur, Laura Belmond of the Make Fashion Circular program responded. She explained that moving toward an "optimized palette of materials" (think higher percentage of natural fibers, less stretchy polyester) is a crucial step in scaling up recycling: "The guidelines align jeans design and construction with the preferred feedstocks of currently available and commercially adopted mechanical recycling and chemical recycling processes."

At the risk of sounding overly negative, I do find these individualized return schemes to be somewhat impractical. While I understand the positive intent behind them, is it realistic to expect people to send back single items of clothing to separate brands for recycling? Usually, wardrobe clean-outs happen in a fit of passion (at least they do in my house) and the last thing I want to do is sort through everything to determine whether a company I supported years previous has a special recycling program. Sometimes the labels are so worn that I can't even read the original source. 

What's needed is a more comprehensive, streamlined approach to garment recycling, where all items eligible for recycling can be sent and redistributed back to their original manufacturers. Otherwise, it may prove too inconvenient for individual customers to follow through. What this would actually look like, I don't know, but perhaps facilities could be set up according to the textile type, e.g. denim, cotton, wool, etc. 

Furthermore, some brands will be waiting for a very long time to get the minimum quantity they need to experiment with proper recycling. I encountered this when researching Finnish raincoat company Reima. They said, "We’re currently planning the first recycling pilot with selected project partners, which can then be carried out when enough jackets are returned to us." But that could take years!

Back to the Jeans Redesign guidelines, however, which are truly great and desperately needed: It's a good thing that so many big-name companies are willing to get behind them. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation says the long-term goal is to extend sustainable manufacturing processes to all clothing. Ideally, we'll reach a point where every garment is made from safe and renewable materials, business models are improved in order to increase the longevity of clothing items, and old clothes can be turned into new. We're already off to a good start.