The Ellen MacArthur Foundation Wants To Redesign The Denim Industry


David Sims

In the sustainable fashion conversation, denim gets a pretty bad rap. It’s collectively considered one of the “worst offenders” as far as its environmental impact, mostly due to the water required to grow the cotton, the repeated wash cycles denim is often put through, the prevalence of Lycra and spandex in stretch jeans, and the hazardous chemicals required for trendy washes and finishes. Denim wasn’t always the bad guy, though: If you look back to its early days at the turn of the last century, denim was made to last. It was durable, 100 per cent cotton that only got that faded “lived-in” look once you’d actually lived in it. As denim evolved from hardy workwear to the foundation of our daily wardrobe, creating jeans got a lot more complex – and a lot less natural.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has introduced a set of guidelines that will help denim companies reduce their waste, eliminate pollution, and eventually implement “circular” manufacturing practices. “Jeans are one of the most iconic clothing items in the world,” says project manager Francois Souchet. “This was our chance to create a shared vision of what good [denim production] looks like, and to bring everyone together to achieve it.”

Billed as “The Jeans Redesign”, the plan was conceived by more than 40 denim experts from academia, brands, retailers, manufacturers, collectors, sorters, and non-governmental organisations. We’re highlighting a few of the most game-changing suggestions below. Some of them might surprise you.

1. Metal rivets should be removed entirely or reduced to a minimum

Did you know the rivets on your jeans don’t really serve a purpose? At least not anymore. Levi Strauss & Co first added rivets to denim work pants back in 1873 as a way to reinforce the pockets and corners, but today’s jeans are securely stitched; at this point, the rivets are just decorative. They’re also very difficult to remove, which is a problem if you’re trying to deconstruct a pair of jeans to repurpose or recycle the denim. Souchet and his team are calling on denim brands to stop using rivets, but he isn’t expecting an immediate response; most brands worry their customers would react poorly to the aesthetic change. “By [at least] limiting the number of rivets in a pair of jeans, you can increase the amount of fabric you can get back and use to make new clothes,” he offers.