Who is… HNST?
If you take the word ‘honest’ and get rid of all those redundant vowels, you get HNST: a Belgian denim brand that – you guessed it – wants to work honestly and therefore gets rid of redundant chemicals, microplastics and extra tags.
Ever since its foundation in 2018, HNST has been communicating transparently and adhering to a circular philosophy – a strategy that didn’t go unnoticed or unrewarded.
The BBC paid the brand a visit when they were doing a series on sustainable fashion, and HNST won the golden Henry van de Velde Award for Ecodesign together with its partner ESG Group.
When selecting resources, HNST puts sustainability and circularity right at the top of its “can’t do without” list. This means that synthetic fibres don’t stand a sliver of a chance. After all, these fibres are an important cause of microplastic pollution, together with plastic polymer coatings. Moreover, when you combine them with natural materials, they seriously impede the recycling process – sometimes even making it impossible altogether.
So which resources do make it through the selection process? Well, the brand reuses as many resources as possible in closed-loop systems, to reduce both the need for raw materials and the strain on the environment. More specifically, HNST saves worn-out denim trousers from the dump or the incinerator, by recycling them into cotton fibres. The mechanical recycling process leaves the fibres too short (the machine can’t help being a bit of a brute), so HNST blends them with Tencel and cotton from Greece. The result is an innovative fabric that is 56% recycled cotton, 23% Greek cotton and 21% Tencel.
Most clothes today are designed for a linear model, ending up as trash or ash. Barely 1% gets a second life as new clothing, and that meagre percentage has a lot to do with design. Traditional denim trousers, for instance, are made from a mix of natural fibres and synthetic stretch fibres. In addition, they contain buttons, metal rivets, synthetic yarn and polyester labels that scream ‘very hard or even impossible to recycle!’.
HNST pants, by contrast, are designed for circularity – in other words: they’re meant to be recycled at the end of their lives. Their fabric is 100% natural, just like the backpatch, which is made from Jacron, a paper material with a leather-like look. HNST buttons are removable, while the rivets are stitched onto the denim. And who needs polyester labels when you can just print the necessary information on the inner pockets of your pants? These clever design inventions ensure that all HNST items allow for single-stream recycling.
HNST is quite rightly proud of the fact that its entire production process takes place in Europe. The old denim (the HNST resource par excellence) gets recycled in Germany, the yarn is spun in Belgium and the fabric is woven in Italy, while the pants are sewn and washed in Portugal. That means no unnecessary transport as well as a chance for the label to look over the shoulder of its partners, to ensure that every item is produced in ways that are honest and healthy, with respect for both factory workers and the planet.
Another common thread that runs through the entire HNST story is the brand’s preference for the most innovative processes that are commercially available, in order to reduce its ecological impact to an absolute minimum. HNST dyes its yarn using the Smart-Indigo technique, an electrochemical process that requires six times less energy as compared to more traditional dyeing methods, leading to a carbon footprint that is ten times smaller. All it takes is electricity, indigo pigment, soda and water (considerably less than what is usually required). While conventional denim goes through multiple washing cycles to acquire the different hues of blue – a process that not only involves a lot of water, but harmful chemicals as well – HNST gets the same result with laser, ozone and enzyme washing techniques. That’s zero toxic chemicals for you.
Finally, HNST not only communicates openly about its materials. The brand also mentions all of its suppliers and production partners on its website, together with the HNST Code of Conduct. Clearly, the brand has nothing to hide.
The label sells its items through the HNST web shop as well as through independent retailers. Single-use plastic is a no-go in any case: the brand uses RePack reusable delivery packaging instead. Before launching its latest collection in 2020, HNST adopted a presales model to optimize their production and avoid deadstock.
Thanks to their high-quality materials and timeless look, HNST jeans are designed and made to last. The brand refuses the Speedy Gonzales-style dictated by the fashion industry, offering its items throughout all seasons and for years on end instead. Every now and then, HNST adds a new model or color to meet its customers’ needs and tastes.
In addition, HNST offers a lifelong repair service to help customers extend the life of their favorite pants. And then there’s the enticingly labelled Morning After Spray. This spray contains only natural probiotics – hard-working microorganisms that freshen up your pants and help you get rid of any unpleasant smells. With this cleaning method, you cut your washing machine use in half and save more than 1.365 liters of water per year.
When you buy an HNST item, you pay a 15-euro deposit. If you’re done wearing your pants, you can send them back to HNST, in return for a 15-euro discount on a new pair. Your old trousers then get recycled, because HNST denim is designed and made with this goal in mind. Every item allows for single-stream recycling, and all materials are used to make new HNST jeans.
Which lesson(s) do you want to share?
Engelen: “Establishing a circular value chain is no mean feat. It often means working with materials and processes that more traditional suppliers are yet not familiar with. It also means asking a lot of questions and paying attention to every little detail, and suppliers aren’t always interested in customers who do that.”
“We’ve had our fair share of production-related setbacks. New materials and processes have seldom undergone large-scale testing, so there are bound to be hiccups along the road. We’ve learned to deal with such situations step by step. Evaluating the various options available allows us to take the greenest route that is currently feasible. Yet greenwashing is a very real danger in the production chain too, so we keep our critical hats on. When we hear about a new process or material, we always research it thoroughly.”
This page was created in February 2021. Curious to find out where HNST stands now? Feel free to get in touch with them via firstname.lastname@example.org!
What challenges are you currently facing?
Engelen: “Sustainability and circularity are fast gaining ground in fashion. The transition towards another way of working is something we applaud, but also want to keep a critical eye on. There is a proliferation of sustainable and circular capsule collections, sustainable materials are hotter than ever, and every brand has its own sustainability strategy. This seems praiseworthy but, unfortunately, many of these brands fall into the trap of greenwashing instead of taking an actual holistic approach to sustainability. On closer inspection, a lot of the materials they use are not as sustainable as they claim to be, and the size of their capsule collections is negligible when compared to the total volumes sold by these brands each year. Finally, most of them fail to pay their factory workers fair wages. In short: their story often doesn’t add up.”
“Sadly, these practices tend to muddy the waters and make it incredibly hard for consumers to know which products are truly sustainable. In addition, these big players are often backed by massive marketing budgets that enable them to outshout smaller brands with more honest (and holistic) intentions.”
What does sustainability mean for you?
Eva Engelen: “For HNST, working sustainably means taking a holistic approach to people and planet. Every day we ask ourselves how we can leave a positive footprint as a brand, both for the planet and the people who come into contact with our products. To meet the necessary ecological goals, the circular economy, innovation and technological progress make quite a difference, but that’s not enough. We also have to be aware of our social impact, and put fair wages, a safe and healthy work environment, collaboration, transparency and ethics center stage – values that seem so self-evident, but that are unfortunately still often violated by today’s fashion industry.”