A Double Denim Crush

By Dr. Christina Dean 6 June, 2013

Christina Dean explains how her latest crush can mop up environmental impact and brand reputation

Esprit's R Cert un-dyed 43% recycled denim blended with 57% virgin cotton can give water savings of ~19%
Pair of jeans uses ~3,625 litres of water in production excluding water to grow cotton at 10,000 litres /kg
Xingtang, denim capital of China makes 260 million pairs a year - think of the water saved if all denim was recycled


I’ve always loved denim. It keeps signs of being a normal human – cue cellulite, blemished and wobbly skin – out of sight and unlike the human body it gets better with age. Yet a new breed of recycled denim clothing, featuring bra tank tops and mini-skirts designed for young mass-market legs, boasts an impressive sustainability CV that has succeeded in getting my personal and professional juices for denim, specifically recycled denim, flowing even deeper.

I’m talking about the Recycled Collection by Esprit and, more specifically, their 43% recycled denim line that has just arrived in Esprit’s select stores in Hong Kong, seven major Mainland Chinese cities, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia. Later this year, it will land on Australia’s and New Zealand’s sunnier and less polluted shores.

The reason for my newfound crush lies in the denim’s recycled content and the resulting environmental savings. The recycled content came from recycling Esprit’s own pre-consumer textile manufacturing waste, in this case cut-and-sew waste, which was collected from within their supply chain and then regenerated and blended with virgin fibres into their own recycled textile clothes. This type of recycling is also referred to as ‘up-cycling’, which is the recycling of a waste material into a product of higher quality.

My crush was accentuated by the third party environmental evaluation, conducted by Reset Carbon, to ascertain the impact from cradle-to-garment gate of up-cycling denim waste back into clothes. The findings are exciting. Esprit’s un-dyed 43% recycled denim blended with 57% virgin cotton is estimated to give savings of 37% greenhouse gas, 19% water use and 17% electricity use per garment, as compared to a dyed 96% virgin cotton and 4% spandex garment.

These environmental savings are not to be scoffed at, especially when projected to the estimated 80 billion garments manufactured from virgin resources annually with an approximate 15% of the textiles required for these 80 billion clothes having ended up on the cutting room floor1.

In theory, such textile waste up-cycling could be applied to all types of manufacturing textile waste since textiles are thought to be almost 100% recyclable. In practice, it is best confined to fewer fabric types, perhaps nowhere more alluring than denim waste.

Firstly, because the environmental savings generated through reducing denim production through recycling is enticing, if only for environmentalists. For starters, denim is a water-thirsty and natural resource-greedy material to produce. It is estimated that producing one pair of jeans, requires 3,625 litres of water, 3kg of chemicals, 400MJ of energy and 13m2 of land (click here for source). This is a sizable footprint just to dress one’s derriere

The impact of the jeans’ industry is also plain to the eye. A recent satellite image of Xingtang, China’s jeans capital of the world that manufactures 260 million pairs of jeans annually, by Greenpeace showed the run-off from the city’s large cotton dyeing plants had coloured the town’s water and much of the Pearl River a deep indigo.

If you attempt to multiply denim’s thirsty, natural resource intense input by the estimated two billion pairs of jeans produced annually, you’ll get a mental whiff of the ubiquitous jeans’ nasty impact. And when you consider that one kilo of cotton requires 10,000 litres of water for just the cotton cultivation stage, the need to capture every stitch and thread of waste becomes more imperative. Therefore, it doesn’t take a genius to assume that up-cycling the inevitable cut-and-sew denim waste generated during jeans’ production into higher quality products, in this example clothes, as opposed to lower quality padding and stuffing materials, makes environmental sense.

As well as the environmental savings, Esprit’s recent recycled collection ticks another box for supply chain transparency. Esprit’s collection carries with it our very own ‘R Cert’. This is a consumer facing recycled textile clothing standard that demonstrates to consumers that their brand recycled their own ‘factory fresh’ textile waste into their own recycled textile clothing.

This issuance of the R Cert allows consumers to scan a QR code on the garment’s hangtag in-store or to input a unique track code into the R Cert website. This takes consumers to an educational animation that translates tricky industry jargon into consumer-friendly chat and allows consumers to track the journey that their recycled textile garment took from factory to retail.

Alternatively, for the non-digital and non-QR scanning IT dinosaurs amongst us, it is also possible to track the garment’s supply chain by navigating the R Cert website. Here is an English and Chinese animation to show the educational cyber journey that consumers will embark on following a few clicks.

Essentially, the R Cert aims to make loving recycled clothes contagious by consumers simply by giving them information about the recycling process, their garment’s environmental savings and by threading stronger reputational trust into their brand’s recycling endeavors.

Ultimately, above and beyond this, Esprit’s recycled collection provides a bigger-picture wake-up call for brands to embrace transparent up-cycling of their textile manufacturing waste into recycled textile clothing. Whilst the size of Esprit’s recycled collection may currently be a small drop in the mass market fashion abyss, the efforts of trying to close the loop is applauded, especially when imagined on a larger scale and across multiple brands.

I’m no mastermind, but even I can reason that up-cycling textile manufacturing waste may offer sustainability, reputational and business value for brands, particularly in this era of increased costs for natural resources.

I’m hoping my crush is contagious.

 1Timo Rissanen, ‘From 15% to 0: Investigating the creation of fashion without the creation of fabric waste’ Presenter, Kreativ Institut for Design og Teknologi, 2005
Dr. Christina Dean
Author: Dr. Christina Dean
Dr. Christina Dean is the founder and CEO of Redress, a Hong Kong based environmental NGO working to promote environmental sustainability in the fashion industry by reducing textile waste, pollution, water and energy consumption. Redress achieves this by conducting educational sustainable fashion shows, exhibitions, seminars, competitions and research. Prior to establishing Redress in 2007, Christina was a journalist and prior to this a practicing dental surgeon. In 2010, Christina was listed by US online magazine Coco Eco as one of ‘2010’s Most Influential Women in Green’. In 2009 she was listed by UK Vogue as one of the UK’s ‘Top 30 Inspirational Women’.
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