Slow fashion, ecobrands, and the move towards carbon-neutral fashion retail

Story by Aileen Macalintal. Photo by Tamara Bellis

By May 2021, more than 60 brands, manufacturers, and fabric mills will have produced “circular jeans.” These are durable pairs that can be turned into new jeans after their use. With a project called “Jeans Redesign,” denim experts have come together to stitch guidelines for the slow fashion business to support the circular economy. 

Most jeans, like other casual and active wear today, undergo processes that are damaging to nature. But, some groups and businesses have come to realise that it’s possible to be planet-people-profit oriented after all.

Trimming waste with The Jeans Redesign Project and MUD Jeans

On October 22, 2020, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation gave an update on its Jeans Redesign project in its live forum “Fashion Show.” 

The UK-based organization said that to date, 68 participants have committed to producing recyclable jeans that can be circulated back into the economy. Instead of ending up as waste or pollution. 

We started with jeans because everyone has them. But this is just the start and it’s demonstrating that actually it can be done. It’s just a starting point, because it’s difficult to produce all the jeans according to this criteria. There are very strict requirements on material for durability and recyclability. But what we offer is that brands will continue to adopt these guidelines so that all of us will benefit from this change in the future. 

Chiara Catgiu, senior research analyst at Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Catgiu said that one barrier is the lack of collaboration within the fashion industry. If players can all come together and push innovation to fill in the gaps, they can overcome these barriers, she said.

“Despite enormous disruption in the fashion industry caused by the COVID-19, it’s encouraging to see companies committed to keeping the circular economy as a core part of their business models,” 

-Francoise Souchet on the #JeansRedesign new signatories 

MUD Jeans is one of the companies around the world that put sustainability at the core of its business. 

“Jeans are one of the most polluting items in fashion. Using 7,000 litres of water and nasty chemicals. With over 200,000 million jeans being sold yearly, the impact of recycling jeans and using organic cotton can be huge.”

MUD Jeans

In 2012 Bert van Son, who has more than 30 years’ experience in the fashion industry, founded MUD Jeans. He set out to do things differently after seeing how the conventional dyeing and washing of jeans harm the planet. 

By using the ‘naked’ fabric we save 74% CO2 and uses 93% less water compared to the industry standard. The nice thing is that the trends of the past years are reflected in the jeans. Most old, recycled jeans were blue, the new cotton is white, hence this mixed denim color

Dion Vijgeboom, Denim Innovator at MUD Jeans

“Eco-responsible” activewear and “guilt-free” kicks

Some brands, however, admit the difficulty of going green.

Two French friends who created beachwear brand Brescia Bercane in Bali, Indonesia said in their site “it is impossible to be 100% eco-responsible.” In fact they do not call their brand 100% sustainable. They prefer “conscious brand.” 

An eco-responsible brand, to them, benefits all its stakeholders. Not just consumers, but also employees, suppliers and partners throughout the value chain and the product life cycle.

Reusable packaging is one of their solutions to minimize fabric waste. They also turn scraps into headbands and scrunchies.

“In 2019, we achieved one of our most important goals: to be a 100% free plastic brand. Living in Indonesia for the past five years, we have always been aware of the waste problem and we consciously aim to raise awareness among artisans and local people around us about alternatives to plastic.”

Brescia Bercane

By 2021, the brand aims to use recycled fabric for its swimwear. It will also launch an activewear made from 90% bamboo fiber and 10% spandex.

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Hong Kong-based Laccess, the “guilt-free kicks,” employs a similar technique. The sneakers maker uses eco-friendly materials such as cork insoles and natural rubber. It weaves trimmings from leather products with recycled single-use plastic bottles.

What comes out of discarded scraps ground into fibres is a new piece of light, durable leather, according to Laccess.

Laccess founder Natalie Chow, who moved back to Hong Kong from Australia, said in a statement that she pursued sustainable fashion after “running the rat-race” and being jaded in the high-end fashion and beauty industry for more than ten years.

“Armed with my keen eye for fashion; and my partner’s know-how in footwear manufacturing as a 2nd generation footwear manufacturer, we set out to create a sneaker brand that would not only allow me to express myself through fashion, but allow me to control how we can do good for the environment and its people.”

Laccess founder Natalie Chow

Millennials increasingly say they want brands that embrace purpose and sustainability, according to a Harvard Business Review article. And theirs is a voice to be heard. Among wealth managers, the millennials’ increasing financial power is a common knowledge as they expect a $30 trillion generational asset transfer to millennials by 2030. 

Harvard’s “The Elusive Green Consumer” also revealed that products with sustainability claims have grown twice more than their traditional counterparts. In addition, organizations that wish to nudge consumers toward sustainable buying behavior can in fact advance public policy and academic research into a solid climate action. 

Overcoming slow fashion barriers and cost of sustainable business models

We’ve heard how H&M, Uniqlo, and other fashion retail giants are ramping up sustainability strategies and targets. But, on the sides, independent ecobrands have been nurturing the circular economy now more than ever.

Across the globe, fashion retailers are on their toes to mitigate the impact of environmentally harmful practices. Deploy London (UK) and Stain (Indonesia), each led by women founders, are two other “eco-conscious” fashion brands.

But slow fashion retailers are honest about the actual business of going green.

Redesigning jeans, for instance, costs more. Basically it is expensive to produce circular jeans, admitted Chiara Catgiu of the Redesign Jeans Project.

In response to this, she said the jeans will be sold according to the price point of the brand. Different brands can offer pairs depending on where one chooses to shop and depending on one’s budget. 

As for the higher operational cost, one can turn to a long-term outlook. 

“So yes, maybe it will cost them a bit more to produce the jeans in this way, but then they will have also benefits of both from the earth and from the environmental point of view,” said Catgiu during a recent forum.

While there is risk of greenwashing, or appearing to be concerned about the environment just to look good, businesses are still confident in the redesigning products such as jeans and activewear.

Even business wear such as Bernice Pan’s Deploy London shows how the global fashion industry is gradually boosting the circular economy.

In an ideal circular economy for fashion, products are made to be used more. Instead of clothes, accessories, and shoes piling up in landfills.