Few 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 of 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.