An increasing number of brands are interested in sourcing clothing, including denim, made from recycled materials

An increasing number of brands are interested in sourcing clothing, including denim, made from recycled materials

Denim companies in Tunisia are pushing forward with investment and initiatives to create a sustainable circular economy making high quality jeans from recycled fabrics.

The work is being encouraged by a European Union (EU) funded regional resource efficiency initiative called SwitchMed, which is led by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). 

This programme, which began in 2013/14, is now moving into phase three, which is to build real circular economies, Antonino Trimarchi, a SwitchMed sub-regional coordinator for Tunisia and Morocco, told just-style 

Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt are all focusing on their textile and garment industries, said Trimarchi. "Their problems are pretty much identical, apart from Egypt which uses different materials and has circular knitting."

Tunisia's textile companies – notably its important high-end denim producers – have chosen "to develop the recycling process using industrial waste from cutting and knitting, to recoup and recycle the material to eventually create the same product, which is particularly interesting for denim."

Trimarchi said participating companies and researchers are now working on a report to assess "how much is wasted in the cutting process and how much needs to be invested in the sector" to avoid waste and create new fabrics from old.

He acknowledges that Covid-19 has slowed down progress, but once the report is published, "our experts will define a pilot project to roll out for the Tunisian and Moroccan textile sectors."

New sustainable systems

According to Trimarchi there have been positive comments about the initiative from leading brands sourcing from Tunisia, including Diesel, Inditex, Benetton and Nudie Jeans who are interested in sourcing clothing including denim made from recycled materials and maybe "looking to invest directly or indirectly" in new sustainable systems.

Johnny De Meirsman, the CEO of Demco, a Belgian/Tunisian jeans and knitwear manufacturer founded in 1991 and based in Moknine, Monastir governorate, told just-style: "It's true that brands like Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein are now focusing 100% on the circular economy." 

He added that the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which supports sustainable development, has created "guidelines for the circular economy in denim, and we are already making jeans along these guidelines."

The first jeans created as part of the Jeans Redesign initiative were launched in October, with Boyish, H&M, Seventy + Mochi, Triarchy, and Weekday leading the charge. Dozens more brands, including Gap, Reformation, Lee, and Wrangler, are set to launch their own products in the coming months.

De Meirsman said his company hoped to get ahead of the SwitchMed goals. "We are aiming for zero waste, and we are getting there. Now the next challenge for the circular economy is instead of turning our cut waste into blankets, insulation or automotive textiles, to turn them into new pairs of jeans."

Of course, such an ambitious goal will be challenging, Trimarchi said. "There's a need to control the quality and make sure the waste is clean. It is very difficult to control the quality of recycled material." 

De Meirsman said that mixed fibre denim is a real problem, and that receiving materials made with elastane and polyester "makes recycling impossible. You need to think about 100% cotton."

He also stressed the cost of investments when converting or adapting textile production machinery. 

Backward linkages

And it is important to maintain backward linkages when looking to create a circular economy in the textile sector. Tunisia's spinning and weaving industry has declined, however a handful of mills remain, including SITEX (Société Industrielle des Textiles), which currently spins, weaves and dyes imported cotton. 

De Meirsman said that in September, SITEX "invested in machinery [for] the circular economy, they are already making fabrics for us with 20% recycled cotton from our cut waste. They are now developing other fabrics, we are hoping they can do 50%."

The Tunisian government could help with regulatory reform. "One of the key issues is that clothes for recycling are currently regarded as finished products and incur the same tariffs as clothes destined for sale in the 'Fripes' (Tunisia's ubiquitous second hand shops and souks). 

"We have several meetings next week with the national government about circular economy," De Meirsman said.

Specialist manufacturers, such as denim makers – an important category for Tunisia – have been hard hit by the coronavirus lockdowns in key markets.

Last year just-style reported that the Tunisian textile and clothing federation FTTH (Fédération Tunisienne du Textile et de l'Habillement) had commissioned a report on the impact of Covid-19 on this outsourcing centre – including policy options to enable companies to recover. It will work with the Middle East and North African wing of the Global Textiles and Clothing Programme (GTEX/MENATEX) to generate a post-pandemic plan: Tunisia garment sector explores post-Covid recovery plan.