The search for sustainable fashion brands can be tricky. Few brands have been built on sustainable frameworks and most operate on legacy systems within archaic supply chains that are complex to overhaul and clean up. For this reason, many brands can only claim incremental sustainability achievements. Not so at HNST.
HNST is a fully circular denim brand founded by Tom Duhoux, an academic and waste management expert well-versed in circular design thinking. In his work as a circular waste solution consultant he found that his advice was rarely acted upon. The resulting frustration spurred him to launch his own business tackling one of the most wasteful industries – fashion.
Putting circular innovation into practice is his passion, so denim jeans were an obvious starting point, given the huge opportunity to transform a product that is a timeless, unisex wardrobe staple and into the perfect circular product. In explaining his choice to completely reinvent the denim business model he said “all the pain points exist in denim”. These relate to the resource intensive raw material (cotton), the intensive chemical processes generally used for dyeing and finishing denim and the throw-away nature of today’s consumer culture. Denim is also a prime material for recycling due to the high cotton content, with feasible technologies existing today to recycle it to high quality levels and feed it back in at the beginning of the product creation stage – fibre preparation.
Tom’s concept was inspired by the fact that the majority of textile waste ends up in household waste. Why not harvest unwanted denim to kickstart a circular denim collection? Launching their first denim harvest campaign in and around Antwerp in 2017, 6000 pairs of jeans were collected, of which half went into the second hand market (as they were in great condition) and the unwearable half were shredded and mixed with tencel fibres, then spun to create a new yarn locally in Belgium. The virgin tencel fibres were chosen as the 50% unrecycled component because they are made in a closed-loop lyocell process (by Lenzing), which is fully sustainable, reusing the chemicals within the loop, releasing no toxic byproducts. The resulting hybrid yarn remains of 100% cellulose in origin and is therefore still fully recyclable and therefore circular.
Speaking to Tom ahead of HNST’s second denim harvest, he explained that the team’s ambition was to increase the recycled component and use local linen and hemp virgin fibres, expanding the range of cellulose-based fibres going into the hybrid denims. Concerning the quality of the resulting denim, Tom explained that the spinning process that creates the yarn is designed to expel recycled fibres which are “too short” – i.e. they would downgrade the resulting yarn.
Only the fibres of optimal length are kept and the textile analysis so far indicates that the resulting denim will be recyclable up to 6 or 7 times. Given the premium quality and the 15 year warranty that comes with the purchase of the jeans, along with a discount for customers surrendering their unwanted denim, this model addresses several limitations of its competitors, namely denim landfill waste and excessive water consumption required to grow new virgin cotton fibres.
On the subject of the slow transformation of the dirty denim industry in the face of current and growing environmental damage, Tom’s lack of preconceptions of how a fashion product should be designed and created meant he could very openly question every step of the denim jean process without considering pre-existing operational systems. Most brands currently focus on costs and optimising their current supply chain, but his opinion is that “making that linear system into a circular system is just not possible”.
“Some optimisation is possible”, for example, choosing sustainable fibres or collecting waste, but “you can only change that if you start from a white sheet and grow a new business that cannibalises the old ones.” He goes on to say it “won’t work from inside out, and smaller satellites will be setting the standard.” He comments that fashion designers are “stuck in their own paradigms”, which he believes hold them back from innovating and transforming traditional, wasteful methods of design and creation.
As far as standards are concerned, a cornerstone of HNST is the use of the Smart-Indigo process, which uses electricity instead of hazardous chemicals to make denim dyeing more sustainable and completely non-toxic.
Traditional indigo dye-solution contains metals and chemicals. Smart-Indigo powder is made soluble by applying electricity to the powder to allow it to dissolve in water. When fixing the indigo colour onto the yarn, PVA is traditionally used, which then results in microplastics being expelled into waste water during clothes washing, contributing to the catastrophic levels of microplastics in our waterways and oceans.
Instead, HNST works with the denim weaving mill Italdenim, which uses chitosan (Kitotex) as a fixing agent, which does not have PVA in it. It is a natural starch derived from the exoskeleton of seashells, and the yarn is first passed through this agent and then the indigo suspension.
So why aren’t all denim manufacturers using this clean and completely non-toxic approach? Cost, Tom tells me. This clean production is more expensive, so it then comes down to brands either committing to prioritising profits, or the health and wellbeing of those producing and living near the production of these textiles. HNST’s higher costs mean they need to work hard on customer engagement and storytelling. They share information on how to take care of their jeans, providing free ‘morning after’ spray with every pair of jeans purchased to reduce the need for washing. They stay in touch with their customer through every life cycle step.
Tom explains that storytelling is something that they need to do as customers do not fully understand the real cost of making their ethical and sustainable jeans. HNST is fully transparent on pricing and he says some of their customers have engaged with that, but on the flip-side, being transparent makes brands vulnerable and opens up discussion on subjects like profit margin.
With the second harvest in full swing it will be interesting to see how HNST expands on its denim materials and sustainability credentials. Their B2B business will kick in in the coming months, seeing them sell their sustainable denim to jeans manufacturers, including London’s Blackhorse Lane Ateliers, expanding the scope and impact of their clean denim beyond the HNST brand and into the wider industry.