When you wear the newest pair of Levi’s, you’ll also be wearing someone’s old Levis: they’re partially made from old, recycled jeans. They’re also fully circular: When they eventually wear out, they can be recycled again into new material for new jeans, using the same innovative technology, developed by a Swedish startup called Renewcell, that was used to produce them.
For the apparel brand, which has been working with the startup for more than two years, incorporating recycled fabric is key to improving sustainability. In a lifecycle analysis of its products, “the overwhelming impact is in the creation of the raw material itself,” says Paul Dillinger, vice president of global product innovation at Levi Strauss and Co. Growing the cotton to make a pair of jeans uses more than 2,500 liters of water, for example; over the lifetime of the jeans, that’s more water than consumers would use washing the clothing repeatedly. By using fabric made in part from recycled cotton, the water footprint—along with the carbon and chemical footprint—shrinks.
Older fabric recycling technology, which chopped cotton into smaller pieces, didn’t work as well because it degraded the value of the material. “It often gets used as insulation, because it’s not the same quality fiber that you started with,” he says. But Renewcell’s tech reconstructs the cotton differently, dissolving it and then forcing the pulp-like material through tiny nozzles to form higher-quality, longer fibers.
The end result, a material branded as “Circulose,” is viscose—a form of rayon—rather than cotton. Because it has a different texture, the designers chose to make the new jeans with a blended textile that also uses organic cotton. Levi Strauss is now testing ways to increase the percentage of Circulose in each pair of pants. (Right now, the jeans are 40% Circulose, and the Circulose itself is made half from wood pulp and half from recycled clothing.) “We can get to a place where we’ll have eventually garments made from 100% recycled cotton,” says Dillinger. “There are ways to make the fiber feel more cotton-like, and that requires a little more R&D.”
The jeans are also designed to be more easily recycled themselves, with trims and tags that would normally be made from other materials now made from cotton that can also be recycled. “You can’t just throw anything into these systems,” he says. “They have to be designed for circularity.” To test that it worked, the company tried sending a pair of the new jeans back to Renewcell, which successfully turned them into new fabric.
There’s no shortage of old clothing to make new material—Americans alone throw out some 26 billion pounds of textiles each year—and the amount that’s collected for recycling is likely to continue to grow. “As we look at new regulatory initiatives within the European Union that make it fundamentally illegal to landfill garments, the macroeconomics are now in favor of using discarded garments as a resource,” Dillinger says. “Because it is becoming expensive to try to landfill this stuff. There’s actually tremendous supply that is ready to be activated.”
Corrrection: We’ve updated this article to note Circulose is a viscose, not lyocell.