The Denim Report: Two Experts On How To Reimagine A Sustainable Denim Future

Is it possible to manufacture denim in a way that's kinder to the planet? Chloe Hill sits down with two experts from Levi's about the possibilities

Levi's recently revelaed its Sustainability Report in the aim of highlighting the foundations of its circularity efforts. Photo / Chloe Hill

To mark this year's World Environment Day on Sunday 5 June, leading stylist, founder of Cool Pretty Cool, and Viva's contributing fashion editor Chloe Hill sat down for some facetime with Levi's senior director global sustainability Jennifer DuBuisson and Levi's vice president, head of global product innovation Paul Dillinger to discuss how the global denim brand has and is continuing to work toward to setting a benchmark for how fashion companies should be operating in terms of sustainable practice and operation.

The discussion is also an opportunity for Levi's to spotlight its Sustainability Report and took place at Hotel Britomart after a day of beach cleaning with Sustainable Coastlines. 

Chloe: Firstly, I’m so interested to hear about the first fully circular 501 jeans Levi’s recently launched. Can you tell us about this project?

Paul: Yes, I can! We visited a facility in Sweden called Re:newcell in early 2018 and saw a beautiful form of textile-to-textile recycling, which is something we’d been studying for quite some time.

It was happening in this bucolic village, Kristinehamn, Sweden, and in this amazing, totally sparkling clean new facility. We saw the only effluent coming out of this facility was this water vapour and oxygen, and it was this incredibly clean, green process.

They were able to turn old jeans into new fibres that could be integrated and blended together with some cotton content to create a denim with the look and feel of a great Levi’s denim. We stayed close with them and we were just about ready to launch the production of our first Re:newcell product, and then the pandemic happened. 

READ: Levi's Has Released Its Most Sustainable Product Ever

There was a great concern that sustainability initiatives, in general, would be deprioritised because everybody was trying to protect cash on hand, everyone was trying to minimise marketing spend, but this was such a unique and special opportunity that we also didn’t want to miss it.

There’s a certain, you know, degree of competitiveness to the sustainability industry. We didn’t want anyone else to realise the beauty of this jeans-into-jeans opportunity before us, and so this little team chased this production all the way around the world, and as markets were shutting down, we decided to reallocate to new markets that were open, and eventually chased ourselves back around to the other side of the world as the full brunt of the pandemic lockdowns happened.

We were able to make the first product message once Levi’s stores reopened in the United States and a few other regions in July of 2020. The very first new product was men's and women's Wellthread jeans made of Re:newcell — 50 per cent cotton and 50 per cent Re:newcell. 

The reason that was exciting is that it has never come to market in the form of a jean before and we weren’t sure what the response to this message might be. It’s really important that we test new ideas like this at a very small scale, in the form of actual production before we ever try to bring them under the spotlight, the big stage, which is what the 501 represents.

So this test that happened was successful when we were to deliver it and we were to lead with the sustainability message, right when the consumer was coming out of hiding and got really favourable feedback in the form of awards and accolades, but also in sell-through. 

People liked it, it felt great, and it looked like jeans. We were then asked the question  ok, so it works, can it work as a 501? That is a whole other level of due diligence, a whole other level of really intensely focused product science.

You have to do a shrink-to-fit fabric, which is a very specific construction and a very specific number of twists per inch and the spinning of the yarn, and all this very, very deep science of denim that goes into making these. Can this new fibre work? Yes it can. Can it wash and can it wear? Can it hold up to the durability expectations of a 501? The answer was yes. 

So we put it together and were able to make it the very first marketing message and product message of 2022, that we had a garment that complied with all the rigorous expectations of the Ellen Macarthur Jeans Redesign Project; a jean that also we had sent back to Re:newcell after making it and submit it to their process, and confirmed that, in fact, it could go into the recovery system that had recycled it the first time. So the second generation material was proven to be a viable third-generation material and I think that it’s probably the first time that fully circular deployment has ever been tested and proven in the form of a market-ready product. 

So, that’s the story of how it happened, and it continues to grow and we continue to build on that success and are excited to continue launching circular product in that 501 family. 

Chloe: I imagine implementing circularity into an established company is a huge undertaking! How do you get the ball rolling to make major sustainable change?

Jennifer: It is a big undertaking — it’s huge. Circularity is not just about the end of life, as Paul was just talking to, it’s about the impacts that go into our products and how they’re manufactured and consumer use.

Luckily there have been a lot of people for a long time across the company, like Paul, thinking about these issues and working on them, so some of the first steps we did include coming up with some really clear principles for what that meant for us, for what circularity means for us, as well as thinking about how we were going to pull all of these different functions together. We’ve been working on different projects and initiatives under one guidance. 

So, at a high level, the four principles that we operate around for circularity are: durability and quality, which is really synonymous with the Levi’s name jeans are meant to stand the test of time, whether they’re the 501 Circulose, or others; design and material innovations; making only what we can sell  I think that’s a really key part of this, we want to pursue various technology, innovations and shift this industry from this “sell what you can make” to a “make what you can sell” approach. The last piece is the collaboration. We realise that we, nor any other brand, is going to reach scale that is needed without working with each other, and working with various platforms and customers to get that lasting change. 

It's definitely not something that’s happening overnight. I don’t think any brand has it totally figure out, but partnerships with Ellen Macarthur Foundation, and others, are helping us find the right path forward. 

Chloe Hill wearing upcyled Levi's denim jeans. Photo / Supplied

Chloe: Your Sustainability Report is available for anyone to check out online. Are there any key takeaways you would love Viva readers to know about?

Jennifer: I hope readers see our commitment.

I hope they see our commitment to sustainability and the rally long history and investment in the future of our business and the communities we operate in. I think the report really starts to demonstrate the foundations of circularity that we’re really trying to put into place, from the work that Paul and his team are doing around Wellthread, to our partnerships that we have, the Buy Better Wear Longer campaign, I hope they read a lot about that. 

Mostly that they know that we’re going to keep pushing, we’re pushing and working to extend the life of our products and doing our part to reduce emissions, and freshwater use, and ensure our employees are safe and healthy around the world. 

READ: The Dirt On Denim: How Levi's Is Making The Industry & Your Jeans More Sustainable

Are you able to fill us in on any sustainability targets or upcoming projects you have in the pipeline? 

Paul: The projects that I think are the most exciting, because they’re quite nascent, we don’t have them built into the targets, but they serve the targets things like a cleaner indigo system.

We’ve announced some important partnerships with natural indigo makers to explore alternatives to the conventional synthetic indigo system. You can clean up your production space, you can clean up your material cultivation space, but we’re often left the dye space alone. It’s chemistry heavy and it’s far away, it’s been a challenge to get our hands around. I think that’s one that’s really necessary. 

That’s the thing that I’m most excited about right now, and you’ll continue to see in the next few seasons, Levi’s talking about cleaner indigo and natural indigo as the next step forward. I’m really excited to report back that they look great! They look great, they feel great — no one's going to have to give anything up to be able to buy cleaner jeans in the future. 

On the target side, we’ve made commitments for 90 per cent reduction in our emissions from our company-operated locations, 100 per cent renewable energy — all of that by 2025 — and a 40 per cent reduction in our supply chain emissions. Really big targets there! Freshwater reduction, 50 per cent. 

From a project's perspective, I’m super excited about some of the work we have going on in the biodiversity space, and the ways that we’re really looking to support regenerative agriculture and soil health are really existing. A lot of that starts at the farm level, and so getting to get down to that level and focus is really exciting. 

Chloe: I couldn’t interview two denim experts without asking one last question… I would love to know how to get the most life out of my jeans — what are your top tips for maintaining and caring for denim?

Paul: Stop washing them, please! I think about marketing campaigns targeting housewives in the 50s, that were really trying to educate households that they weren’t good moms if they weren’t carpet bombing their kids with chemistry and just really trying to create this sterile environment.

We know that’s not good. When we look at the lifecycle assessment of a pair of jeans, you’ve got these big carbon sinks and water sinks safety in the ownership phase — that’s the washer and that’s the dryer. Washing is so often unnecessary, it's almost like a rote habitual, a domestic behaviour, but not a necessary one. 

My favourite pair of jeans has never been washed and I’ve owned them for about 10 years. Now, that may sound gross, but it’s not, and I remember where I got that mustard stain, and that was a really good day when we went to Giant Stadium and we saw a ball game. There’s this way of thinking or imagining laundry that can be different and better, and it can really reduce your carbon footprint, but it can also create a lot healthier clothes.

Cotton is the flower on the top of a plant, and you would never put a flower in a washer or dryer, right? You’d treat it kindly. You’d put your plants near the window, give them occasional water and a little bit of sunlight, and that’s fine. You’ve got jeans that will last a century, literally, if you just stop putting them in a giant box that dries water. 

My ask of everyone is to wash as infrequently as you’re comfortable with and hang the product to dry, and at the end of a very long and well-loved life, give the jean away or find a new home for it. That’s really the core of the Buy Better, Wear Longer campaign. 

Chloe: With your 10-year-old unwashed jeans, do you put them in the sun or anything? Or spot clean? 

Paul: Absolutely, I refresh them. They could use some refreshing, and that is generally a 50/50 mix of water and vodka, spritzed into certain areas, turned inside out, laid in the sun and allowed to dry, and they’re fine. 

That’s something I picked up in college when I did opera costuming and theatre, and when you couldn’t clean costumes, overnight certainly, between the next performance — a healthy spritzing of vodka water mixture kept the divas fresh. So, that’s what I take as my own home care habit for my favourite jeans. 

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