Circular Economy

What is ‘circular denim’ and why are top brands redesigning jeans?

Demin jeans are seen hanging up in a shop.

It takes 3,781 litres of water to make a single pair of jeans. Image: Unsplash/Jason Leung

Sean Fleming
Senior Writer, Formative Content
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Circular Economy

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  • It takes 3,781 litres of water to make a single pair of jeans.
  • Circular production methods could trim the amount of water and other resources denim consumes.
  • Many leading brands are backing a circular economy for jeans.

For millions of people around the world, denim is a wardrobe staple. Yet a single pair of jeans uses 3,781 litres of water in its production lifecycle. Now top brands are having a rethink and backing a circular economy for denim.

The ‘circular denim’ approach will reduce the amount of clothing currently ending up in landfill.
The ‘circular denim’ approach will reduce the amount of clothing currently ending up in landfill. Image: Ellen MacArthur Foundation
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Biodegradable buttons

Every year, hundreds of millions of jackets, jeans, shirts and skirts are made, shipped and sold around the world, consuming colossal amounts of water, energy and cotton. Added to which, many items of clothing eventually end up in a landfill site.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has established a set of guidelines called The Jeans Redesign, to encourage a greater use of the circular economy within the denim sector. So far, dozens of brands have signed up and pledged their support. They include some of the industry’s biggest names, including Gap, H&M, Wrangler and many more.

“In a world with limited resources, we must move to an industry founded on circular economy principles,” said Martijn Hagman, CFO of Tommy Hilfiger Global, in the Jeans Redesign report. “Through transparency and coming together to share best practices we can drive the fashion landscape forward towards this future vision.”

Everything from metal rivets and zippers to the proportion of reused fabric is now an important part of the way denim clothes are designed and made. One of the participants, Frame, has launched a jacket called the Ellen, which is made from 100% organic cotton. It is 90% biodegradable, and the manufacturers say that claim includes the metal buttons, pocket lining and tags.

A stitch in time

Although not part of the Jeans Redesign project, the Swedish denim brand Nudie is another devotee of the circular economy. It encourages customers to return their unwanted, or no longer needed, denim and get a credit towards another pair; it also offers a lifetime repair service on its jeans.

Nudie’s commitment to mending people’s jeans has saved 50,000kg of clothing from landfill.
Nudie’s commitment to mending people’s jeans has saved 50,000kg of clothing from landfill. Image: Nudie Jeans

In 2019, Nudie says it repaired 63,281 pairs of jeans and collected 11,573 pairs that customers no longer needed. That led to 50,000kg of clothing being diverted from landfill, and 443,000,000 litres of water being saved that would otherwise have been used in the production of new clothing.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about the circular economy?

Circular thinking

Traditional manufacturing has followed a flat, linear model. Resources are transformed into products which are sold and eventually discarded.

Circularity calls for a fundamental change, starting with design and running all the way through a product’s lifecycle.

Its chief principles are that products should be designed with easy reuse or recycling in mind, that reused materials should be used instead of net new resources where possible, and that products should last longer.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Circular EconomyNature and BiodiversityEconomic Growth
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