Going in circles: Making new jeans out of old denim
The Handbook / Eco / Let's talk about recycled denim

Let's talk about recycled denim

Going in circles: Making new jeans out of old denim

Words— Mylène Genty

Denim is more than a textile: it’s a symbol, deeply embedded in the fabric of North American culture. Because we grew up surrounded by this sturdy, rugged fabric, it can be difficult to truly grasp the cultural impact it had on fashion and also on our environment, since its inception in 1873.





Starting as workwear staple at the beginning of the 20th century, it represented endurance as it was worn by factory workers. It was later romanticized through the cowboy myth in the 20s and 30s, personified by cultural icons such as John Wayne. In the 50s, it channelled the rebellious spirit of the youth thanks to a certain James Dean. In the 60s and 70s, it became an anti-war symbol, with hippies and activists sporting it as a way to show support to the working class—that’s when it became associated as being part of the counterculture. The advent of the supermodel era, along with high fashion, put a racier spin on denim in the 80s: think of the sultry Calvin Klein ads featuring Brooke Shield.  Then came the grunge era and then it was hip-hop’s turn. Nowadays, it’s stratified: every subculture as its version of the blue jeans along with its attached meaning. One thing is clear—it’s become so popular, we’re over-producing it. As we’re getting closer to 2020—perhaps the next era will have jeans embody a new wave of fashion, one that is ethical and eco-responsible.



Could denim lead the example and help reshape the way we think, manufacture and consume fashion? 


It’s up to us, consumers, to make the decision as to what we want the market to give us—in this case, clothes that are respectful to the environment. Yet in order to make changes and shift culture in a different direction, we, as consumers have got to make sacrifices. There’s no lack of options: eco-responsible brands are emerging, natural fabrics are on the rise and factories are taking the lead in finding new alternatives to reduce textile waste. 





The alternative of post-consumer waste—the use of textile waste—is an area in eco-responsible design doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. Take a pair of Levi’s 501 jeans. According to Sourcing Journal, it consumes about 2,570 litres of water1. Hélène Smits, a consultant from the Circle Textiles programme which is specialized in circular textiles economy, points that if we use 20% of fibres from post-consumer waste as opposed to regular cotton, it can "save up to 500 litres of water per garment2." 



But how does that work? 


The post-consumer waste recycling machine (or PCW) can process up to 1,700 pounds of denim fabric per hour, grinding the textile to its very fabric. This circular process of re-use can be broken down into what we call the 4 C’s:





Aside from saving fabric that was destined to the landfill, one of the most underrated benefits of this process is the saving of chemicals. It indeed requires a lot of chemicals to make your jean soft, stretchy and for it to get that "worn-in" look. Using the fabric that was destined for landfills, the jeans then contribute to a circular process that revolves around sustainability. 


We may not see the end of fast fashion consumption anytime soon, but with all the options at hand to be more green, there is a reason to be hopeful for change. Getting our clothes from recycled processes is one easy step towards ethical fashion—without compromising our sense of style. 



1. Sourcing Journal: The Future of Recycled Cotton Denim Leans on Innovation, by Jasmin Malik Chua, 2018.
2. Idem.

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