What is ‘circular denim’ and why are top brands redesigning jeans?

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Sean Fleming, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • It takes 3,781 litres of water to make a single pair of jeans.
  • Circular production methods could trim the amount of water and other resources denim consumes.
  • Many leading brands are backing a circular economy for jeans.

For millions of people around the world, denim is a wardrobe staple. Yet a single pair of jeans uses 3,781 litres of water in its production lifecycle. Now top brands are having a rethink and backing a circular economy for denim.

The ‘circular denim’ approach will reduce the amount of clothing currently ending up in landfill.
The ‘circular denim’ approach will reduce the amount of clothing currently ending up in landfill. Image: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

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Biodegradable buttons

Every year, hundreds of millions of jackets, jeans, shirts and skirts are made, shipped and sold around the world, consuming colossal amounts of water, energy and cotton. Added to which, many items of clothing eventually end up in a landfill site.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has established a set of guidelines called The Jeans Redesign, to encourage a greater use of the circular economy within the denim sector. So far, dozens of brands have signed up and pledged their support. They include some of the industry’s biggest names, including Gap, H&M, Wrangler and many more.

“In a world with limited resources, we must move to an industry founded on circular economy principles,” said Martijn Hagman, CFO of Tommy Hilfiger Global, in the Jeans Redesign report. “Through transparency and coming together to share best practices we can drive the fashion landscape forward towards this future vision.”

Everything from metal rivets and zippers to the proportion of reused fabric is now an important part of the way denim clothes are designed and made. One of the participants, Frame, has launched a jacket called the Ellen, which is made from 100% organic cotton. It is 90% biodegradable, and the manufacturers say that claim includes the metal buttons, pocket lining and tags.

A stitch in time

Although not part of the Jeans Redesign project, the Swedish denim brand Nudie is another devotee of the circular economy. It encourages customers to return their unwanted, or no longer needed, denim and get a credit towards another pair; it also offers a lifetime repair service on its jeans.

Nudie’s commitment to mending people’s jeans has saved 50,000kg of clothing from landfill.
Nudie’s commitment to mending people’s jeans has saved 50,000kg of clothing from landfill. Image: Nudie Jeans

In 2019, Nudie says it repaired 63,281 pairs of jeans and collected 11,573 pairs that customers no longer needed. That led to 50,000kg of clothing being diverted from landfill, and 443,000,000 litres of water being saved that would otherwise have been used in the production of new clothing. sustainability

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the circular economy?

The World Economic Forum has created a series of initiatives to promote circularity.

1. Scale360° Playbook was designed to build lasting ecosystems for the circular economy and help solutions scale.

Its unique hub-based approach – launched this September – is designed to prioritize circular innovation while fostering communities that allow innovators from around the world to share ideas and solutions. Emerging innovators from around the world can connect and work together ideas and solutions through the UpLink, the Forum’s open innovation platform.

Discover how the Scale360° Playbook can drive circular innovation in your community.

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2. A new Circular Cars Initiative (CCI) embodies an ambition for a more circular automotive industry. It represents a coalition of more than 60 automakers, suppliers, research institutions, NGOs and international organizations committed to realizing this near-term ambition.

CCI has recently released a new series of circularity “roadmaps”, developed in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), McKinsey & Co. and Accenture Strategy. These reports explain the specifics of this new circular transition.

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3. The World Economic Forum’s Accelerating Digital Traceability for Sustainable Production initiative brings together manufacturers, suppliers, consumers and regulators to jointly establish solutions and provide a supporting ecosystem to increase supply chain visibility and accelerate sustainability and circularity across manufacturing and production sectors.

Connect to Learn More →

Circular thinking

Traditional manufacturing has followed a flat, linear model. Resources are transformed into products which are sold and eventually discarded.

Circularity calls for a fundamental change, starting with design and running all the way through a product’s lifecycle.

Its chief principles are that products should be designed with easy reuse or recycling in mind, that reused materials should be used instead of net new resources where possible, and that products should last longer.

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