Cotton Incorporated

Celebrating a Decade of Giving New Life to Old Jeans

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America is a leader in many areas, one of them being the consumer market.

That has its pros—we can be counted on to buy a lot of the world’s goods but, of course, it has its cons—one being that we aren’t necessarily making lifetime purchases. This means a lot of used, slightly used or just plain worn products are heaped into local dumps all over the country. But some companies, like Cotton Incorporated, are finding a way to lighten the landfill load by finding new uses for discarded items.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Cotton Incorporated’s Blue Jeans Go Green denim recycling program, an initiative that diverts denim garments from landfills and upcycles them, turning them into UltraTouch Denim Insulation, through manufacturing partner Bonded Logic, Inc. The home and building insulation is then donated to organizations like Habitat for Humanity to help communities in need.

Since the program began in 2006, the Blue Jeans Go Green program has diverted more than one million pieces of denim waste, or about 600 tons, from the nation’s landfills, while manufacturing more than 2 million square feet of insulation.

These milestones were achieved with the support of consumers who wanted to help make a difference in the environment. The U.S. is home to a consumer economy where roughly 70 percent of the GDP is generated by household spending. This spending includes everything from real estate and healthcare to durable goods like washing machines and cars.

Of course, non-durable goods are also part of the equation and they include food, fuel and textiles. Once the non-durables are used or worn out, they hit the trash—more than 254 million tons worth in 2013, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Textiles, says the EPA, account for 9 percent.

Nearly seven of 10 consumers (68 percent) are concerned about overconsumption of goods, according to the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor Survey. But the majority of Americans (68 percent) “love or enjoy” wearing denim and it’s the most popular bottom to wear for all kinds of occasions: running errands (50 percent), work (32 percent) and dinner (31 percent).

Denim is a part of everyday life for most people, and U.S. shoppers prefer to go places where they can wear jeans (78 percent), and when they’re looking to buy a new pair, the top priorities are fit (75 percent), comfort (70 percent) and looking good (65 percent). The ability to wear jeans most anywhere combined with the comfort factor has led to the average U.S. shopper owning six pairs of jeans.

“Consumers care about their denim in a way they don’t seem to care about most other apparel products…So they want to see that it continues to have a value, it continues to have a life after they’re done with it.”

-Andrea Samber,
Co-Director of Strategic Alliances, Cotton Incorporated

Maintaining this steady denim wardrobe means folks are disposing of their old pairs regularly. Even though they may be out of style, worn out or no longer fit, the Monitor finds 44 percent of people donate their jeans to charity. Others give them away or keep them (both 13 percent) or reuse them in a different way (10 percent). But 14 percent just throw them away.

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Even though denim is all or mostly cotton, a highly biodegradable natural fiber that decomposes relatively quickly, from within one week to five months, the people at Cotton Incorporated realized the average user felt a bond with their old jeans. And that’s what inspired the Blue Jeans Go Green program

“Consumers care about their denim in a way they don’t seem to care about most other apparel products,” says Cotton Incorporated’s Andrea Samber, co-director, Strategic Alliances. “So they want to see that it continues to have a value, it continues to have a life after they’re done with it.”

Since 2006, the Blue Jeans Go Green program has partnered with dozens of colleges around the country in a move that’s collected thousands of pieces of denim while giving students a chance to give back and get involved in an eco-conscious program.

In 2009, the denim recycling program set the Guinness Book of World Records for the Most Items of Clothing Collected for Recycling when it partnered with National Geographic Kids and amassed 33,088 items of denim, including jeans, shirts, jackets, and hats.

The Blue Jeans Go Green program has enjoyed its share of celebrity attention, too. Last year, singer Sheryl Crow and actress AnnaSophia Robb helped honor the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina by joining a Habitat for Humanity Build-A-Thon. They helped construct 10 new homes in 10 days in New Orleans, padding the homes with the UltraTouch Denim Insulation. And three years ago, 15 stars, including Britney Spears, Kourtney Kardashian, Heidi Klum and Dwayne Wade donated autographed jeans for a unique auction: People placed online bids on the celebrity jeans, using their own used denim as currency. The auction generated 5,393 pieces of denim from bids and a star-studded affair was held at the Mondrian Los Angeles to celebrate the culmination of the event.

Retailers and brands have also gotten in on the recycling effort. Industry supporters of the Blue Jeans Go Green program in 2016 include Madewell, Guess and Saks Fifth Avenue Off 5th.

“Together with our customers, Saks Fifth Avenue Off 5th is proud to be part of such a worthwhile campaign,” said Jonathan Greller, president, Saks Off 5th and Gilt. “This partnership was a natural fit for us, allowing us to give back to the community and at the same time, deliver a service to our customers that rewards them as well. It really is a win-win.”

*This story first appeared on Lifestyle Monitor

Fashion’s Steady Path Toward Sustainability

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by Catherine Salfino

Clothes drying on clothesline on a summer day
Clothes drying on clothesline on a summer day

The global apparel industry is a $1.7 trillion business that employs several million people worldwide. It’s a giant that provides the basics and the aspirational. But in the last decade especially, whether from complaints about waste due to “throwaway” fast fashion or concern for Mother Earth, companies began taking their roles as partners in sustainability very seriously. While no one claims the job of going totally green is complete, there is a sense that apparel manufacturers are making strides in closing the sustainability loop.

Timo Rissanen, assistant professor of Fashion Design and Sustainability at Parsons The New School for Design, says he’s seen a dramatic change since he started his PhD in 2004.

“The fact that we can now engage in conversations about a circular economy rather than a growth-based one is a considerable shift in the mindset,” Rissanen says.

Rissanen points out that even fast fashion players have switched gears and made eco-conscious strides in the last decade. This makes sense as consumer concern for socially responsible causes has risen. While the top issues at retail are increasing prices (86 percent) and food safety (84 percent), 82 percent of consumers worry about air quality, followed by water quality/scarcity (80 percent), and child labor practices (79 percent), according to the Cotton Incorporated 2014 Environment Survey.

In the vein of environmental concerns, nearly 7 of 10 consumers (69 percent) would be bothered if they found out an item they purchased was not environmentally friendly, according to the Environment Survey data. And 39 percent would blame the manufacturer, followed by the brand (15 percent) and then themselves (12 percent).

Such concerns have led to positive changes throughout the apparel industry. H&M now offers its Conscious Collection, which includes cotton produced through the Better Cotton Initiative, in a move toward “making fashion sustainable and sustainability fashionable.”

Meanwhile, earlier this year Walmart introduced its online Sustainability Leaders Shop. Using data provided by The Sustainability Consortium, for which it was a founding member (Cotton Incorporated is a Tier 1 member), Walmart is promoting nearly 3,000 items from more than 100 companies labeled as “Made by a Sustainability Leader.” These badges aim to make it easier for customers who are looking for both affordable and sustainable products by identifying those that score best in class in Walmart’s Sustainability Index, which measures efficiency, waste and social and environmental impacts across each product’s supply chain.

In the U.S., consumers look to manufacturers and retailers to help them when it comes to making greener choices. For example, the Environment Survey shows nearly half of all consumers (49 percent) plan to purchase apparel or textile products in the coming year that are labeled as “environmentally friendly,” as well as “sustainable” (43 percent) and “recycled” (38 percent).

Juan Diego Gerscovich, co-founder of Industry of All Nations (IOAN), a Los Angeles-based brand, says it’s fair that consumers would hold companies responsible, as well as look to them for help in making responsible purchases.

“People are trying to be more thoughtful, and moving away from being purely just consumers in every way,” Gerscovich says. His company sources natural materials to makes apparel, shoes, accessories and home goods and colors its products using all-natural dyes from lac beetle secretions (for purple shades), leaves, and minerals. “[Consumers] know something is wrong. As an industry, we could be doing a lot more, but I think we’re on the right track.”

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When it comes to terms that are influential to consumers’ apparel purchases, more than three in four consumers (77 percent) say the claim of 100 percent cotton is most influential, followed by Made in the USA (68 percent), natural (61 percent), and sustainable (57 percent), according to the Environment Survey.

As companies “do good,” they increase the goodwill shoppers have toward them. A Nielsen study showed more than half (52 percent) of all shoppers check product packaging to ensure its sustainable impact. And 52 percent have purchased at least one product or service in the previous six months from a socially responsible company.

Rissanen says the industry itself has helped make it easier for companies to do the right thing.

“On a concrete level we have a lot more good quality information readily available, alongside useful tools, thanks to initiatives such as the Higg Index, Clean by Design, and many others,” he says. “Current efforts to recycle cotton fibers from blends such as cotton/polyester are promising. This wasn’t the case in 2004. Ten years ago, the only solution was to compost the cotton and then recycle the polyester, or recycle the blend together into a lesser quality product.”

Rissanen says the recycling of post-industrial and post-consumer wastes by companies such as Pure Waste Textiles in Finland and Recover in Spain is very promising.

Cotton Incorporated also has a program aimed at giving recycled cotton a new life. It’s Blue Jeans Go Green denim recycling program collects used jeans and recycles them into UltraTouch Denim Insulation, a portion of which is distributed each year to communities in need. So far, more than 600 tons of denim has been diverted from U.S. landfills and over 1,000 homes have been insulated. The program’s partners have included American Eagle Outfitters, Abercrombie & Fitch, J. Crew, Neiman Marcus, and Madewell.

Gerscovich maintains that social and environmental sustainability equals a sustainable economy.

“I have a lot of faith in humans,” he says. “We’re smart and we know how to take care of ourselves. And we know a change is needed in the way our world works—economically and politically. It’s super important because the changes are beneficial for everyone on the planet.”

This article is one in a series that appears weekly on sourcingjournalonline.com. The data contained are based on findings from the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor Survey, a consumer attitudinal study, as well as upon other of the company’s industrial indicators, including its Retail Monitor and Supply Chain Insights analyses. Additional relevant information can be found at CottonLifestyleMonitor.com.