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H&M, Gap, and Tommy Hilfiger are pledging to clean up toxic denim

This is what our jeans need to look like if we want to save the planet.

H&M, Gap, and Tommy Hilfiger are pledging to clean up toxic denim
[Image: courtesy Ellen MacArthur Foundation]

I’m sorry to say that if you care about the planet, you’re going to have to stop wearing jeans with cool metal studs, grommets, and rivets. All those fancy trims—like lace, embroidery, and patches—need to go. And no more distressed jeans made by stone washing or sandblasting.

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This week, a collective of big brands, including H&M, Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, Lee, and Reformation, have all signed on to a new project called The Jeans Redesign, which is intended to reduce the carbon footprint of denim production. It’s the latest initiative from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (an organization committed to creating a more circular economy), where denim goods are recycled and reused, rather than tossed in a landfill. Companies that opt in to this project promise to abide by standards that will make recycling easier.

Jeans are perhaps the most ubiquitous garments on the planet, aside from T-shirts. Two billion pairs are sold globally every year, and this is expected to grow by 4.9% over the next five years. Right now, the vast majority of all clothes—including jeans—end up in landfills at the end of their life cycle, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And thanks to the skinny-jean trend, most jeans have plastic-based spandex or elastane in them that will not decompose.

But there is plenty of technology available to recycle denim, says Francois Souchet, the fashion industry lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Some brands—including Madewell—have started accepting old jeans, which are sent through a mechanical recycling factory, which shreds them so they can be used for other purposes, like insulation in homes. Chemical plants have ways to break down jeans and recreate the polymers to make new materials. It is also possible to unravel yarns in such a way that the threads stay intact (though it’s hard to do, since unraveling typically breaks the threads), and this allows mills to turn them back into fabrics. But just because the technology exists doesn’t mean that it is widely used. Currently, the Foundation believes that less than 1% of the material used to produce clothing is being recycled into new clothing.

Part of the problem is that there are no standards for how brands and factories make jeans. So recycling companies often struggle to handle the complex array of studded, sandblasted, and embroidered jeans that arrive at their doorstep. Little things, from the chemicals used to make a distressed look to the grommets used to add a design element, make the jeans much harder to recycle. Compare this to plastic manufacturers, who are required by law to label products so that the consumer knows whether it can be recycled or not. The Jeans Redesign project is trying to eliminate many of the hurdles that make the recycling process harder for recycling companies.

In February, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation brought together a group of 40 industry experts, including textile recyclers, apparel manufacturers, and fashion designers, to talk about what is preventing more jeans from being recycled. Together, they drafted guidelines to show brands how to redesign jeans to make them more recyclable.

Part of this involves making 98% of the entire pair of jeans, by weight, from cellulose-based fibers, like cotton, hemp, lyocell, or viscose. This means that brands cannot use more than 2% of plastic-based fibers, like elastane. And the guidelines ask brands to reduce their use of metal rivets and other hard-to-remove decorations. Zippers are fine, but they should be easy to cut out.

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[Image: courtesy Ellen MacArthur Foundation]

Hazardous chemicals also present problems for recyclers. Many jeans are distressed using various chemical processes, and the chemicals can become toxic or otherwise interfere with the chemical recycling process. For instance, stone finishing and sandblasting leave a lot of residue during recycling, which can build up in recycling machines. Potassium permanganate, which is used to create different finishes, can cause a burning sensation on the skin, or even permanent blindness if it comes into contact with eyes. When it is put through the recycling machine, it could get reactivated and severely hurt those working in the facility.

The Jean Redesign guidelines forbid these processes and others. But that doesn’t mean our jeans will be dull and boring from now on. Levi’s, for instance, has pioneered a new approach to denim finishing that uses lasers, rather than chemicals, to create different looks, which is both faster and less toxic than traditional methods. These guidelines will likely encourage other brands to invest in similar technology. (Levi’s had not yet signed on to the Jean Redesign at the time of publication.)

Souchet doesn’t expect change to come overnight. Any brand can choose to sign on. They only need to report back about how much progress they have made by May 2021. At that point, they will be asked to share what percentage of their jeans now comply with these guidelines. “We don’t want to make this burdensome for the brands,” Souchet says. “That would defeat the purpose. We want them to familiarize themselves with these best practices and work towards incorporating them into their entire product line.”

But perhaps more importantly, these guidelines will make industrial recyclers more eager to gather old jeans because it will be a lot easier to put old jeans through the machines. And the more brands sign on, the more raw materials they’ll have to work with, which they will then be able to sell. The foundation calculates that if all the clothes that we throw away were instead recycled, they would generate more than $100 billion worth of materials each year. “We want to give recyclers the tools to scale up,” says Souchet. “These guidelines are designed to make their work as easy as possible.”

So when will it be the norm to recycle our jeans or buy recycled jeans? Souchet says that we should get to that point in about a decade. After all, it will take time to change the denim supply chain and build up denim recycling businesses. But 10 years is also not that far away. My 3-year-old will be a teenager at that point and will probably not have the option of wearing the bedazzled jeans I wore as a 13-year-old.

That’s probably for the best. Those flashy jeans were a fashion crime.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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