As we recognize Global Recycling Day and think about what we throw away, we would like to take the opportunity to look at circularity through the lens of Cotton Incorporated’s Blue Jeans Go Green™ recycling program, which diverts denim waste from landfills and turns well-loved garments into something new to make a difference.
Recycling is a key part of the circular economy, as it helps to protect our natural resources. Each year, recyclables save over 700 million tons in CO2 emissions and are projected to increase to 1 billion tons by 2030. The most recent studyconducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicates that approximately 17,000,000 total tons of textiles are thrown out each year. According to Cotton Incorporated’s 2022 Lifestyle Monitor™ Survey, the average American owns 11 pieces of denim, and Cotton Incorporated’s 2019 Retail and Sustainability Trends Survey revealed that nearly two-thirds (64%) of consumers say they only regularly use and wear about 20% of the clothing in their closet.
Promoting recycling saves carbon emissions while reducing the waste sent to landfills. Energy savings are also realized by manufacturing products using recyclable raw materials, utilizing what has already been produced. When clothes are designed, sourced, and produced with natural materials, worn for as long as possible, and then eventually repurposed or recycled, their life is circular.
Created in 2006, the Blue Jeans Go Green™ denim recycling program is a call to action to recycle old denim and give it purpose by transforming it into something new. Since 2006, retailers, universities and school groups, organizations, and individuals across America have contributed well over 4.5 million pieces of denim and diverted over 2,290 tons of textile waste from landfills.
Collected pieces of denim are recycled and manufactured by Bonded Logic, Inc., into denim insulating material used in various applications from home building and cold shipping solutions packaging to industrial mattresses and pet bed interiors to automotive and home appliances. Over the years, a significant amount of the natural cotton fiber building insulation made from recycled denim from Cotton’s Blue Jeans Go Green™ denim recycling program has been distributed to various Habitat for Humanity affiliates, a non-profit helping people build, repair and improve homes, and other community building projects across the U.S.
The idea for collecting old denim and recycling it into insulating material came together in 2005 during another program that was promoting all things cotton towards college coeds and Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. Cotton Incorporated knew that denim could be recycled into a non-woven material and was familiar with the leading natural fiber manufacturer, Bonded Logic, Inc.. When interacting with students on campus around the country, it became clear how important the environment was to this demographic, and how concerned they were about the devastation Hurricane Katrina had wrought on local communities.
This inspired us to further develop our college outreach to include education on denim recycling, with a call-to-action component to recycle. We incorporated this into the college program in the fall of 2006 at 14 universities. The initial response from students was overwhelming, with over 14,500 pieces of denim contributed for the purpose of creating insulating material that could then be given back to help rebuild homes in the Gulf Coast region. That year, the first recipient of insulation from the Blue Jeans Go Green™ program was Habitat for Humanity of Greater Baton Rouge. Since then, more than 150 K-12 schools, colleges and universities across the United States have participated in the program.
Brands and Retailers Getting Involved
Over the past two decades, over 100 different brands and retailers have been active and engaging participants in Cotton’s Blue Jeans Go Green™ denim recycling program in a way that works best for them. Participating in Cotton’s denim recycling program quickly gained popularity among retailers wanting to convey their commitment to cotton sustainability.
So far this year, brands and retailers that are participating include Anthropologie, American Eagle, Frank And Oak, Ariat, Madewell, Paige and Zappos. In 2019, Zappos approached Cotton Incorporated about including the Blue Jeans Go Green™ denim recycling program in their Zappos For Good initiative, the charitable giving arm of the company. Zappos wanted to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability by making recycling accessible to anyone in the continental U.S., offering a prepaid shipping label to consumers who want to recycle their denim. In 2021, the program expanded to include thermal packaging insulation from meal delivery companies in addition to denim recycling.
Memorable Moments and What’s Next
Throughout the program’s history, there have been many memorable moments and milestones. The program is proud of setting a Guinness World Record™ in 2009, in collaboration with National Geographic Kids magazine, for collecting the most items of clothing (specifically denim) for recycling. The program also celebrated reaching 1 million pieces of denim collected in 2013 and participated in helping rebuild 10 homes in 10 days in New Orleans during the 10-year commemoration of Hurricane Katrina in 2015.
We are very excited to be rapidly approaching the milestone of 5 million recycled pieces. The success and blueprint of the Blue Jeans Go Green™ denim recycling program has also helped guide the recent launch of the Cotton Lives On™recycling programme in the U.K. We are thrilled about the brand and retailer interest and participation during the programme pilot, which includes local U.K. retailers and U.S. brands like Anthropolgie with a brick-and-mortar presence across the United Kingdom.
Participating in the Blue Jeans Go Green™ denim recycling program gives consumers a chance to contribute to the sustainability efforts that Cotton Incorporated has championed since 1970 and provides an opportunity to give back to our people and our planet. Through Cotton’s Blue Jeans Go Green™ program, people can better understand how their fiber, fabric, and fashion choices can affect the earth, from how clothes are made to where they go once they’re worn out. Looking forward, we hope to continue inspiring people to wear and recycle denim made from cotton.
Cotton Incorporated is leading the charge for cotton’s sustainability and promoting recycling garments made from cotton. Initiatives like Blue Jeans Go Green™ program focus on knowing what our clothes are made of, and when they’re made from cotton, they’re natural, durable, and recyclable.
Our aim is to educate directly and amplify the message through co-branded programs with brands, retailers, and other organizations to make it easy to recycle worn-out denim. Please visit bluejeansgogreen.org to learn more.