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From Dungarees to Designer – Denim Reigns Supreme

The Jeans Redesign Project and The Circular Economy

Blue jeans are one of the most iconic pieces in our wardrobes. Though initially manufactured as workwear for miners, jeans made their way into mainstream fashion in the 1960s. They are so significant that they have even served as currency for people backpacking through Eastern Europe and Asia. But in recent years, jeans manufacturers have moved away from the heavy-duty material that made them famous, as they have become a part of the fast-fashion movement that has flooded the retail world. Many jeans have now evolved into stretchy, legging-like pants. The introduction of the ‘jegging’, as well as a myriad of stretchier-than-they-should-be denim-blend pants, have made our favorite jeans into an ecologically negative item. Whether it’s consumers trying to keep up with fashion trends, or the reduced quality of the products we buy, an enormous amount of clothing is ending up in the landfills. More than 15 million tons of clothing goes to waste every year. And sadly, over the last 30 years, denim has gone from heavy-duty to disposable.

Enter the Jeans Redesign Project. The brainchild of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the Jeans Redesign Project brings together over 60 retail brands, manufacturers, and fabric mills to abide by a specific set of guidelines that will “transform fashion into the circular economy.” The Jeans Redesign is “creating solutions for a world where clothes never become waste.”  

The mission of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is to “accelerate the transition to a circular economy.” Since it’s still a new term for many of us, let’s define it. A Circular Economy is an economy “based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.” In layperson’s terms, that translates to using fewer resources when manufacturing products, using the products for the long-term (and recycle them/buy recycled items) and replenishing the planet when we use its resources.

Here are four of the guidelines that companies must follow to participate in Jeans Redesign Project Guidelines:

Durability – The goal is to increase the number of times the item can be washed – thus extending its lifespan. The jeans must be able to be laundered at home a minimum of 30 times. It is also a requirement to provide clear care instructions visibly inside the garment.

Material Health – The materials used to manufacture the jeans must be sourced from materials that utilize regenerative farming. The jeans must also be manufactured safely – eliminating the use of toxic chemicals during production and treatment (say goodbye to acid wash!). One interesting tidbit is that now companies are using lasers to give denim the variety of worn looks we see today.

Recyclability – 98 percent of the jean’s composition must be from cellulose-based fibers. Also, a metal such as buttons and rivets must be minimal or easily removable for recycling.

Traceability – Items must be clearly marked with the Jeans Redesign logo so that future recycling will take place. If a consumer does not know the item is part of the project, it will likely end up in the bin or donation bag – thus stifling the amazing recycling process of this program.

There are over 60 participants who have joined the Project so far. Some of the more familiar participants include The Gap, H&M, Guess, Lee, Tommy Hilfiger, and Wrangler. H&M not only has a front and top “sustainability” link on its homepage, but it also has created a Jeans Redesign Collection. As more participants come forward with products, collections, and the marketing to accompany them, the Jeans Redesign Project will experience a collective momentum that will bring awareness to the mainstream.

Throughout history, people have gotten very creative with recycling their denim. People have reconfigured and spliced denim into new pieces of clothing, or even created patchwork yardage to be made into new clothing. Some modern ecological homes have used scrap denim as insulation. While these efforts represent innovative reusable applications of jeans, the impact of their life-cycle in these instances doesn’t make these use cases examples of fully circular and sustainable applications. The Jeans Redesign Project, on the other hand, is working directly with some of the biggest manufacturers to create a huge and hopefully lasting impact. Laura Balmond, Program Manager for Make Fashion Circular states it best, “If participants collectively adopt the guidelines, at scale, and in all four areas at the same time, there is an important opportunity to collectively raise the ambition level of the fashion industry.” The Jeans Redesign Project is aiming high with the hopes that the rest of the fashion industry will adopt similar practices. Now let’s do our part and shop the brands and products that will help make the circular economy mainstream.

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