The future of denim: jeans made of recycled plastic bottles

(This article was published in Weekend Argus, a weekly regional newspaper in the Western Cape province, South Africa, on 29 June 2014.)

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Local environmentally conscious trendsetters can now literally walk their green talk in a pair of jeans made of cotton and recycled plastic bottles.

And while it might sound strange that ‘green’ jeans are made partly of recycled plastic bottles, this is what the future of denim looks like, believes clothing retailer Woolworths.

It is leading the pack, becoming the only local retailer to work with suppliers to manufacture jeans made with recycled materials. To this end, it recently launched RE:CYCLED, a range of men’s jeans that contain at least 12 recycled 500ml plastic bottles.

Michelle Land, technical manager for brands at the Woolworths head office in central Cape Town, explains that each pair of jeans contains 65% cotton sourced from various African countries.

The remaining 35% of the fabric is polyester made from recycled plastic bottles. She says this “process uses eco-chemicals, reduces water usage by 67%, and reduces energy usage by 62%, enhancing the environmental benefits”.

“Sustainability is a huge focus for all the top (clothing) brands in the world. They are working with less chemicals. I wanted to get that into our stores. We started talking to our suppliers,” says Land.

Denim for the jeans are made in Mauritius, where the garments are also finished and packed to South Africa. The production process has also been streamlined to lessen its environmental impact.

Land explains: “In the past, a jean, from the beginning of making the fabric to the end product, used 90 litres of water. Now that process uses 35 litres of water. Our manufacturers are using washing machines that use less water. Chemicals used are also not harmful.”

Luke Fobian, who manages the recycled jeans brand, says there is “definitely a move towards sustainability throughout the world”.

“Denim is probably the most pollutant in terms of garment manufacturing. It wastes a lot of water. Using recycled materials in denim is the future,” says Fobian.

“This jeans is such an iconic garment but so harmful to the planet. Manufacturing jeans has been damaging to the environment. Future designers need to think about manufacturing jeans in a sustainable way.”

Woolworths might be the leading local in terms of using recycled goods in clothing manufacture, but this principle has already taken root with big brands and major fashion labels.

Legendary jeans manufacturer Levi’s introduced denim made with polyester that comprises recycled plastic bottles almost two years ago. Its clothing tag informs: “These jeans are made of garbage”.

Its Waste Less denim jeans and jackets last year reportedly contained 3,6 million recycled plastic bottles and food trays. And that was only for its Spring season collection.

Ethical fashion has led UK fashion designer Stella McCartney, daughter of legendary Beatles singer Paul McCartney, to refuse using leather or fur in any of her products.

McCartney says on her website that she also works with wool suppliers that “show documentation stating that our wool comes from sheep that do not undergo inhumane practices”. Her fragrances are also not tested on animals and Meat Free Mondays are encouraged.

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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