Recycled and recyclable are the mantras of the day for Los Angeles eco-fashion label Reformation as it launches new circular denim and in-store recycling programs.
Denim has become a touchstone for Los Angeles-based sustainable fashion label Reformation. It launched its Ref jeans in 2017 and they’ve quickly become best-sellers, making up ten percent of the label’s product offerings. Now, the brand’s new Circular Denim is the latest in its ongoing efforts to clean up the fashion industry.
The new Circular Denim will use manufacturing waste for the first time. The jeans are also designed to be recycled once they’ve reached the end of their life cycle as well.
The move is part of the brand’s efforts to become climate positive by 2025; it’s been carbon-neutral since 2015. In its 2021 sustainability report, Reformation said it improved on its scorecard, but also said there is much to improve on.
“We examined which sustainability issues are incorporated across 16 recognised international sustainability and fashion industry frameworks,” the company said. “Issues included in more than 55 percent of frameworks were indicated as important and were incorporated into the final benchmark.”
Its efforts to be transparent and responsible run the gamut from the scorecards on each item’s environmental footprint and social impact, to projects like offering credit for consumers who resell their items on the secondhand app ThredUp. Its also worked on restoration projection, such as providing 140 million gallons of freshwater to dewatered areas of California, where it’s headquartered.
Chief among its efforts to continue improving its business are improving manufacturing and after-care and end of life for its products. Denim is a critical area of focus, according to Kathleen Talbot, Reformation’s chief sustainability officer and vice president of operations.
“We’re a few years into the category now, [but] we started it with the idea that it’s the most common thing in our closet, and also the dirtiest….We knew we needed to tackle it,” Talbot said in a statement. “The circular denim partnership is really about building those relationships and showing that there is a better way.”
Reformation says it partnered with several entities including FibreTrace, SuperCircle, Strom, and Bossa on the denim. FibreTrace helps the brand trace its cotton lines to ensure quality and sustainability metrics. SuperCircle works on the recycling side. Strom is a fully vertical manufacturer and Bossa is a zero-waste-focused mill.
But fiber-to-fiber recycling is tricky; it requires large amounts for processing, as much as a ton at a time.
Talbot says the brand partners are willing to take extra steps to make it possible and clean up the industry; about 12 percent of fibers wind up as scraps, something Reformation wants to change. With help from the brand partners, it says it’s been able to do that. The end result is denim that’s made from 20 percent recycled scrap cotton and 80 percent FibreTrace cotton, and all denim in the collection is fully recyclable.
“We didn’t do that as a one-off collection,” Talbot said. “This is also now a design ethic we apply to our denim [since] we launched FibreTrace a year ago now. [Circular Denim] is also the first collection that ascribed to all of the Ellen MacArthur Jeans Redesign initiative.” That effort revolves around improved sourcing and material credentials.
Recycling at Reformation
The celebrity-loved brand will now take your old jeans back at any of its U.S. locations (you can also request a shipping label online). SuperCircle then sorts and manages the textiles and routes them to the best recycling partners to turn those old jeans into new fibers.
Reformation says it felt it was important to reward its customers for participating. In addition to denim, it also takes footwear, sweaters, and activewear. Consumers earn store credits for the items they bring in for recycling; $25 for shoes, $15 for jeans, and $10 for sweaters and activewear. They can also track their donated pieces on the Reformation website to see if it was actually recycled.
“There are a lot of take-back programs where brands have been doing this for years, but they’ve never hit the product minimum to do anything with what they are collecting. They probably have a container of slowly accumulating items that customers have sent back. But it’s not making a difference yet; it’s not being put back into the fashion system,” said Talbot. “In some ways, that feels a little bit performative.”
She says with RefRecycling and the collaboration with SuperCircle, this marks the label’s first chance to collaborate with other brands that might be doing similar projects. “We are working with SuperCircle to develop really strong relationships with the fiber recycling partners based on the category and to get a lot of other brands involved,” she says.
“This isn’t just a take back program — Reformation aren’t just taking responsibility for the garments that they created and offering to dispose of them for customers,” Stuart Ahlum, co-founder of SuperCircle and Thousand Fell said. “They’re actively pushing the boundaries of innovation by turning old Ref garments into new Ref garments, which leads to large scale post-consumer recycling of cotton,” he says.
Textile waste is a big problem in the U.S. More than 16 million tons of textiles are thrown away in the U.S. every year. Fast fashion drives much of this waste, with garments too poorly made to last more than a few wears. This means much of the waste winds up in landfills or countries that don’t restrict the garment exports. The issue has become so widespread that a number of developing countries now ban the used garments.
Reformation is the first to admit it’s not a curative for the fashion waste problem, but it’s a step in the right direction.
“Within the SuperCircle platform, customers can track [a donation] and see where we end up sending it,” Talbot says. “It’s giving us a lot of visibility and tracking [information], with the intent being that we can understand the impact of the program and as a brand better.”