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Denim Deal successfully concludes: 'Appetite' for international expansion

By Anna Roos van Wijngaarden


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Denim Deal logo Credits: Denim Deal, Rosa van Ederen

The goal of the Dutch Denim Deal was to increase the share of post-consumer recycled cotton (PCR) in denim, especially in jeans. After three years of collaboration, the project concluded successfully in a closing event in Amsterdam. The achievements, challenges, and next steps were explained by the six-member steering committee of the Deal. The message: recycled denim is entirely feasible. As a result, international expansion is now on the agenda.

It's possible: Denim Deal goals almost achieved

A total of 53 private and public signatories reached the finish line of the Deal. In 2020, they set a goal to use 5 percent PCR content in the production of denim garments. Initially, only 8 percent of the participants were achieving this target. However, after three years, the share for denim in the Dutch market surged to 39 percent. For the international market, the share increased from 12 percent in the base year 2020 to 53 percent by the end of 2022.

Examining jeans in particular, 41 percent of the Dutch production and 53 percent of the international output by the participants contained a minimum of 20 percent PCR by the end of 2022.

A secondary goal of the Denim Deal was to produce 3 million sustainable denim pieces throughout the entire process. This was achieved internationally, but for the Dutch market, the target proved to be too ambitious.

The Deal's objectives pertain to mechanical recycling (cutting and fibering) of cotton textile waste, but participants also explored possibilities for chemical recycling (melting and dissolving). In five to ten years, all efforts are expected to focus in that direction, as stated by a yarn producer during the event. The chemical variant offers solutions for recycling non-cellulose fibers or contaminated textiles.

International expansion

Dutch trade association Modint estimates that Dutch denim brands produce 27 million pairs of jeans per year. The Denim Deal has proven that recycled feedstock is a viable option for such quantities. Globally, the market encompasses as many as 2 to 6 billion jeans annually. The denim industry is highly international; the Deal began as a Dutch initiative, but parties from Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, Bangladesh, Switzerland, and the US quickly joined. The logical next step is to think industry-wide and leverage the Denim Deal formula, according to the steering committee.

The strategic plan is to launch international hubs at key geographical points in the denim market: first in the EMEA region, then in North and South America, India, and finally the APAC region. The setup mirrors that of the Dutch Deal, with a steering committee comprising representatives from the public and private sectors, annual assessments, and a platform for pilots and knowledge sharing. The grand vision is to gradually move towards a global jeans standard: a minimum PCR content of 20 percent.

The first milestone is set for the end of 2025. By then, 300 million jeans should have been produced to this ratio. The ultimate goal of 1 billion (300 thousand tons of PCR fibers) is quite ambitious, as evident from the reaction in the room during the closing event. However, according to the presenter of the expansion plan, Nicolas Prophte (VP Denim Center at PVH), the number should be inspiring enough to appeal to denim players from other countries.

The expansion plan also takes into account the use of the remaining 80 percent with regenerative cotton. To measure progress, reliable indicators are needed, as well as collaborations with best-in-class suppliers. The network formed with the expansion of the Deal must be held together by an educational platform, and eco-design guidelines are in the works. For many designers, PCR textiles are still new, and the design process involves entirely different approaches. “Using recycled content and extending the lifespan of products - it sounds like a contradiction, but we need to incorporate circularity into our design,” said Prophte.

Foreign parties have already expressed interest in their own Denim Deal. The Turkish Ministries of Environment and Trade are “very eager” to continue, a conclusion drawn by Arnout Passenier, Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, who has been involved from the beginning. There are no indications of concrete Denim Deals 2.0 yet, but Passenier is not concerned: “The network won't fall apart with the end of this Deal - we know how to reach each other - and there is so much international appetite. It will work out.” Financing, however, remains a question mark. The original Denim Deal was a voluntary Green Deal supported by the Dutch government with the aim of achieving a climate-neutral Netherlands by 2050. Denim Deal Coordinator Roosmarie Ruigrok indicates that this government support might not continue in a possible sequel.

Denim Deal closing event Credits: Denim Deal, Rosa van Ederen

PCR comes with a price tag

A questionnaire among the participants of the Deal revealed several lessons that need to be taken into account in future Denim Deals, such as the importance of a safe environment for knowledge sharing.

Other lessons are challenges that not only slow down the scaling up of PCR fibers in denim but also drive up the price, such as export barriers. Waste material often cannot simply cross borders for processing in the intended facilities. According to the participants, there should also be a mature secondary market for sorting companies and fiber makers, along with more clarity about PCR specifications. Currently, there is significant variation in the criteria for feedstock and end materials among participants.

While the quality of recycled industrial textile waste is reasonably consistent, this is not yet the case for PCR. This was evident from several pilots conducted until the end of the Denim Deal. To match the quality of conventional denim, much still needs to be done, such as making sorting procedures more precise and faster, and effectively tracing the origin of textile waste. Also, the quality and volumes of collected textiles need to increase. At present, consumers are not sufficiently aware of their role in this story. They usually throw textiles into regular waste instead of clothing bins. As a result, only 12 percent of textile waste in the Netherlands is recycled. At the same time, people need to be fed a more positive image of recycled material in new clothing so that they purchase it more readily. Simultaneously, brands' price expectations must be adjusted. By stimulating both the demand and supply of PCR, production can increase, and prices can decrease.

Polyester contamination

Among the suppliers, there is still an unresolved issue: contamination of the feedstock with non-cellulose fibers such as lycra or PBT, which are common in jeans. Indigo dyes only adhere to cellulose fibers like cotton, while polyester remains undyed, creating white spots on the blue PCR fabric. “I can produce it, but nobody will buy it,” says Besim Ozek, the Strategic Director of Turkish supplier Bossa. According to him, polyester contamination is one of the main reasons why brands prefer recycling with industrial waste residues: Pre-Consumer Recycled Cotton.

Due to all the additional steps involved, that material is at least 2 dollars cheaper than PCR variants. “You have to cut off all parts with polyester sewing thread, and the weight of the four panels that remain is only 40 percent of the weight of denim. So, 60 percent still ends up as waste.” Besim can process up to a maximum of 3 percent non-cellulose fibers. Due to the necessary stretch and polyester sewing threads, that percentage often ends up higher. The bigger problem is that the composition is unknown beforehand: “It comes from the consumer, so there are no tags or labels anymore. I only see how bad the contamination is after dyeing.”

For effective mechanical recycling on a large scale, the improvement of collection and sorting is crucial, as well as the development of alternative materials for stretching. “There are many different parties involved in the Denim Deal that can figure this out,” believes Passenier, “which is truly unique internationally. If the deal expands and other governments are involved, it becomes even more interesting”.

The objective of establishing 'PCR as a global standard' necessitates action from both the demand and supply sides. The complexity in determining roles during the scaling-up process raises important questions. In the quest to shape Denim Deal 2.0 effectively, a recurring question emerges: Are we waiting for one another, or is it time for collaborative action?

This article was originally published on FashionUnited.NL before being translated and edited.

Denim Deal