The New Denim Project Takes on a Circular Economy

The New Denim Project is a premium fabric line made from 100% pre-consumer, upcycled denim. The project, based out of Iris Textiles, a cotton yarn and fabric manufacturer operating in Guatemala since 1956 is committed 100% to social and environmental compliance. The Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator also has lots of beautiful samples of their fabrics in the s.Lab materials library.

The manufacturing process is chemical-free, dye-free, and uses minimal water and energy, saving up to 20,000 liters of water per kilogram of upcycled material. Their technique also reduces the consumption of new products, minimizes the waste of raw virgin material and re-uses discarded textiles and fibers to elongate their life span by creating ethically-made & premium-quality products. The final cotton waste that cannot be spun anymore is donated to farmers and coffee-growers to use as compost waste and serves as an organic fertilizer for their soil.

We caught up with Arianne Engelberg, Creative Director of The New Denim Project to see what she had to say about the future of fibers and upcycling.

What do you think the stigma is regarding upcycled and recycled?

I believe some of the stigma attached to upcycled and recycled goods is that it is probably of lower quality than a product made from virgin material. We have put so much effort and time into producing yarns and fabrics from upcycled fibers, to make sure our product is equal in quality, or perhaps better than one made from virgin resources. Upcycling emulates the way nature and life works. Where materials and organisms are always transformed, to serve a beneficial purpose to it’s environment. What can be of better quality and purpose than this? We consider upcycling is the most important path into a circular economy and a sustainable future.

How hard is it to come by all the pre-consumer waste that you are using for stock?

It is truly fairly easy. Guatemala is the third largest denim producer in America, which means there is a lot of denim scraps. During the cut and sew process, about 13% of all fabric is discarded. This pre-consumer waste is definitely more than enough to keep us busy. We are beginning to use knit scraps as well from knit manufacturers, as knits are the main export product of Guatemala (more than coffee, bananas and sugar!). Another upcycled material we are beginning to develop is fiber from second-hand clothing, which is imported from the USA (Guatemala imports add up to 7 million lbs. of clothing per month!)- and for different reason about 15-20% of these used clothes don’t get sold every month, so we collect these and break them down back into fiber, and re-spinning these into fine yarns and fabrics. So, we believe there is enough pre and post consumer waste going around for us to upcycle and turn into magic!

Talk about some of the challenges in creating a closed loop system for the New Denim Project.

Of all closed-loop challenges, I would say the main question was what to do with our own waste? Through the years we found the greatest partners possible- our friends at Finca San Jeronimo Miramar (coffee farmers) to whom we produce coffee sacks made of denim (instead of jute) to export their coffee. While exploring possibilities together, we came up with the brilliant idea to send them our spinning waste, as they had the know-how as to how to re-use natural waste (from the cotton) and mix this with their compost waste to be able to use as natural fertilizer for their coffee plants. This way we not only produce zero waste, but have a positive impact – as our waste now serves to grow premium specialty coffee from the volcanic highlands of Guatemala.

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You’ve partnered with some pretty large companies like West Elm and Whole Foods, are more big brands taking notice?

We believe so. Working with West Elm and Whole Foods was an amazing experience. Not only did it bring notice from big brands, but also from brands and companies with our same values and visions. We have met brilliant people, who have not only become our partners, but also our friends and allies in this legendary movement towards an industry that works not only towards environmental and social compliance, but works towards an abundant world that works in harmony with its community and its collective home. We believe in joining efforts and ideas with people who are dying to see the art of textiles brought back to life, and given back the love and the craft they deserve.

Learn more about the process in this video featuring a collaboration with West Elm and Whole Foods:

To learn more about how brands are taking on sustainable strategies, check out our Sustainable Fashion Roadmap tool.