C&A's not-so-secret recipe for circular jeans

Cradle to Cradle jeans
These are billed as the "world's most sustainable" blue jeans.

This article is drawn from the  Circular Weekly newsletter from GreenBiz, running Fridays.

Sustainability always has been in C&A’s genes — and now it’s in its jeans. Last week, the Dutch apparel company launched the first Cradle to Cradle (C2C) Certified Gold denim jeans, an impressive feat for a notoriously polluting product in the sustainability-challenged fashion industry.  

When I hear about product launches, my first instinct is typically to move on. I find that these proclamations are usually more about marketing than moving markets. But C&A’s launch not only offers an affordable, circular option for consumers — the jeans will cost about $34 per pair — it provides companies with the roadmap to follow in its fashionable footsteps.

You may have read about C&A’s first piece of C2C Certified apparel, a biodegradable T-shirt that takes 12 weeks to decompose in a backyard compost pile. Jeans aren’t as simple. It take 49 separate ingredients to construct and process C&A’s new offering — from the zippers, rivets and threads to detergents, softeners and stabilizers. Each ingredient individually was assessed for material health for to achieve the certification.

Understanding the implications of C&A’s certification requires getting back to circular economy basics and revisiting the two classes of material cycles: biological and technical. Biological nutrients (plant-based and biodegradable materials) are meant to cycle back into their environment, while technical nutrients (metals and plastics) are intended to circulate in closed-loop industrial systems. Think food waste becoming compost to return to soil versus recycling aluminum to make a new can. The challenge of effectively implementing circularity arises when products, such as jeans, combine both cycles.

"Many products result in what are called 'monstrous hybrids,'" said Jay Bolus, president of Certification Services at MBDC, one of C&A’s key partners on this project. "They combine both technical and biological nutrients in a way that cannot be easily separated without degrading the material and rendering it non-recyclable or biodegradable."

In order to tackle this monstrous hybrid, C&A partnered with Fashion for Good, a global platform that unites apparel producers, retailers, suppliers, non-profit organizations, innovators and funders in a pre-competitive environment to accelerate sustainability in the fashion industry.

It’s hard to imagine grocery shopping without nutrition labels, and it’s easy to take for granted the level of legally obligated transparency in the food industry. The same is not so for fashion and textile toxicity: The apparel industry historically has been known for its secrecy and proprietary information. Calls for supply chain transparency often center on labor practices rather than material makeups. Going against industry convention, C&A and Fashion for Good released a free guide (PDF) that walks through the certification process, troubleshoots challenges and offers a framework for replicating its approach. The toolkit even includes the complete bill of materials, making the jeans’ entire "nutrition label" available to other retailers.

"We are sharing all the lessons learned and our bill of material with the fashion industry to encourage and open up the way for all jeans to be made this sustainable way," said Charline Ducas, global circular economy lead at C&A, via email. "This means the industry has an open-source recipe for future success in evolving sustainable fashion for all and transitioning to circularity. We are calling the fashion industry to join us in transforming the way we all make jeans."

Time will tell if C&A’s mass-market consumers close the loop and return used jeans as part of the company’s "we take it back" recycling program or if they will buy the certified garments at all. Although the T-shirt and jeans account for a minute fraction of C&A’s expansive catalogue, both are promising examples of corporate circular economy leadership — ones intended to leverage the company’s scale. It’s an ambitious call for transformation in a nascent market.