Growing the cotton for a typical pair of jeans uses 2,500 liters of water, often in areas facing water shortages. And when the jeans wear out, they’ll probably end up in a landfill, like most clothing. Using recycled material shrinks that total environmental footprint, but traditional fabric recycling can lower the quality of the next iteration of the clothing. To change the total cost of the lifecycle of a pair of jeans, Levi Strauss has been working on a better way to recycle its iconic product.
“We felt it was necessary to tackle the issue of garment waste,” says Paul Dillinger, VP of design innovation and Levi’s. “We can design towards strict standards for circularity as a theoretical exercise, but until we really do our part to help stand up the systems that will accommodate taking back garments and turning them into alternative material to replace virgin materials, we’re not doing all we can to support the concept of a circular economy.”
Conventional recycling didn’t go far enough. “Traditionally, garment recycling has essentially been taking back garments and chewing them up,” he says. “It’s not too dissimilar from a large coffee grinder. It’s really about ripping the clothes into the smallest component pieces.” In the best cotton, long fibers make the yarn strong and durable. When a recycling process chews up those fibers, creating a fuzzy substance that Dillinger compares to dryer lint, it can’t be reassembled into a strong material. Instead, only a small percentage of the recycled material can be used in a new garment, and even then, the new pair of jeans won’t last as long.
The brand partnered with Renewcell, a Swedish startup that is one of a handful of companies pioneering a new type of fabric recycling. The technology fixes the problems with clothing recycling by breaking cotton down into the basic building block of cellulose and then creates long filaments that can be woven into new material, called Circulose, that’s soft and durable. “It really ups the opportunity for fiber and garment recycling to become legitimate displacement opportunities to wean ourselves off the need for huge quantities of first-generation cotton,” Dillinger says.
In 2020, Levi Strauss started selling its first jeans made with a blend of the material. The jeans—the winner of the consumer products category in Fast Company‘s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards—were also carefully redesigned to remove other materials, such as polyester thread and a leather tag, so that they can ultimately be completely recycled themselves in an ongoing loop. “Hopefully, in perpetuity, these materials can retain their value and draw down the impact from virgin material,” he says.