The EU-funded SwitchMed/MED TEST III pilot project reveals the potential for producing jeans from materials recycled out of pre-consumer textile waste in Tunisia. Jeans have a problem. The production process requires significant amounts of resources and uses substances that are harmful to the environment. Using a good mix of recycled fibres could avoid many of the polluting and water/energy-intensive processes required to make textiles from virgin raw materials, including the harvesting of natural fibers.
Under the EU-funded SwitchMed programme, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the Swedish denim brand Nudie Jeans have since 2020 collaborated on a pilot project in Tunisia to demonstrate the viability of sourcing and reintroducing recycled textile fibers from second quality products into the fabrication of new jeans.
A recently published report outlines how the pilot project managed to repurpose 6,530 pairs of second quality jeans into 16,000 new pairs of jeans with a composition of 20% of recycled cotton. Together with Nudie Jeans’ local suppliers, the collaboration with UNIDO could demonstrate the business case for high-value recycling of second quality jeans in the Tunisian textile and clothing value chain.
Roberta De Palma, Chief Technical Advisor from UNIDO, says that “with a ‘high-value recycling concept’, we demonstrate how to recycle pre-consumer textile waste into new garment products instead of downcycling it into lower value products and set an example on the potential for a completely local recycling value chain in Tunisia.”
According to a textile waste mapping study from UNIDO, Tunisia’s textile and clothing industry generate over 31,000 tons of pre-consumer textile waste each year, out of which over half is either 100% cotton waste or ‘cotton rich waste.’ The transport of pre-consumer textile waste from Tunisia to recycling facilities in Europe and Asia increases the carbon footprint and causes up to two-thirds of the total cost of recycled denim. All the recycling and remanufacturing processes in the pilot project were undertaken in Tunisia, within a radius of 180 km, reducing costs and CO2 emissions from transportation.
De Palma adds, “Recycling locally helps to retain the value in Tunisia while positioning the Tunisian industry on the global market as a future partner with a supply-chain that can produce more sustainable denim.”
For Nudie Jeans, ‘sustainable fashion’ is more than a phrase. It operates with a business model that prioritizes workers living wages, the use of certified eco-cotton and transparency of the supply chain. The company also offers real circular economy alternatives, such as free repair services, sales of reused denim and a trade-in scheme for their used jeans.
“We have been looking for a smart resource-use solution for our second quality stock, and we hope that this can help to ‘close the loop,‘ avoiding textile waste from landfill, and at the same time replace virgin materials in our jeans,” says Eliina Brinkberg, Environmental Manager at Nudie Jeans. A second phase of the Nudie Jeans collaboration will pilot the recycling of post-industrial textile waste such as cutting scraps. The potential to locally source recycled textile fibres is significant, especially considering that Tunisia has all the production capacities required for this process. In addition, pre-consumer textile waste is more manageable to reuse than post-consumer textile waste as the sorting, quality and sourcing can be done within the same supply chain.
“We are looking into the possibility of using cutting scraps as well, to try to use as much of the waste from our production as possible,” adds Brinkberg. Committing to becoming part of the solution rather than the problem is a step forward, and brands like Nudie Jeans, together with their Tunisian partners, show that the production of denim, although not yet perfect, can get better for both the people, planet and, if you want, for you. The jeans produced in the pilot are already available for sale in selected Nudie Jeans shops and online.