Levi’s Wellthread Recycled Denim. Photo / Supplied

Levi's Has Released Its Most Sustainable Product Ever

Vice-president and head of global product innovation Paul Dillinger reveals what’s next for denim, and how the fashion industry can create transformative change

The questions around how we’re living are more urgent than ever. Covid-19 has disrupted fashion worldwide, forcing brands to reassess how they function, and highlighting the urgency of addressing the industry’s environmental impact.

Levi’s has seen plenty of change during its 167 years: world wars, social upheaval and globalisation. Most recently it’s been tackling sustainability, guided by vice-president and head of global product innovation, Paul Dillinger, and its response to the pandemic has been to “double-down on our commitment to positive change”.

The key to the brand's sustainability strategy is its innovative Wellthread range, the limited collections where Levi’s tests out new developments, and its where the historic brand recently released its most sustainable jean to date; Levi's Wellthread Recycled Denim.

Paul has been with the company since 2014, and under his watch it’s been pushing for innovation. He believes successful design now must incorporate ethical materials and manufacturing, a minimal environmental footprint, engineered durability, and an end-of-life strategy. 

Paul talks about how it's going, why it's hard, and what the fashion industry needs to do next.

When did you first become interested in sustainability and why?

I grew up in the woods of the Pacific Northwest — surrounded by trees and mountains, and not a lot of people. As a kid, I would get upset whenever I saw a familiar tract of forest being logged or grasslands cleared for a new housing development.

Reading John Naisbitt’s Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives when I was about 10 years old helped me understand that the global trajectories for population growth and consumption were inherently unsustainable. I became a little environmentalist at a time when access to information meant a long bike ride to the public library — so I was passionate, but not terribly well informed.

Around that time, I also figured out that wanted to be a fashion designer. I studied fashion design at university and graduate school at a time when sustainability wasn’t part of the conversation. Design pedagogy was centered around creativity, beauty and self-expression, and the industry had very little awareness of its place — in society, in the economy, or in the environment.

As more information has become available and awareness of our industry’s environmental impact is more broadly understood over the past 25 years, I recognised the need and opportunity to align my career with those values I had held onto from my childhood in the woods.

It’s definitely been a journey, and I’m fortunate to be at a point in my career - and working for a company where I’m able to align “what I do” with “what I believe”.

Paul Dillinger. Photo / Kjell Ruben

Why is research such an important part of fashion, and how has your background as a Fulbright scholar, and later a professor, informed your approach to working in the industry?

Traditionally, the fashion system’s goal has been to predict and systematise an inherently emotional phenomenon; to anticipate preference and convert it to purchase. A design is successful when it accurately predicts the form of a product a consumer will want to buy a year from now.

Design in this context prioritises cultural awareness, creative synthesis, and aesthetic relevance; the application of wholly subjective skillsets to generate a qualitative (but essential) business value. Decisions are informed by intuition, invention, and style.

As the fashion industry takes responsibility for its own impact and designers to integrate new considerations  like resource conservation, social justice, and ethical consumption into their design process, the metrics for success need to shift from qualitative to quantitative.

In a professional context-based on subjective aesthetics, it’s the designer’s job to know which pink will be “the right pink” next year... but now that our standards for good design have evolved, the process of designing “the right pink” T-shirt includes selecting ethically sourced materials that are dyed without creating waste or pollution, manufacturing in a fair and transparent supply chain, and engineering our product durability and an efficient end-of-life material recovery strategy.

Designers are traditionally educated and conditioned to make decisions like picking “the right pink” based on informed intuition and aesthetic preference calibrated to their consumer. Conversely, a sustainable design methodology has to constrain the influence of intuition to a limited set of design decisions and defer to science for the rest.

READ: Clean Up Your Act: Consider These 7 Sustainable Beauty Swaps

The measure of sustainable design value has to be quantified by relative impact: How many litres of water were saved? How much was the carbon footprint reduced? When recycled, can it be its own virgin material alternative? Although a designer may believe that they’ve selected “the right pink”, they cannot believe that a T-shirt made from bamboo fiber is more sustainable than one made from cotton. They have to know it and prove it. (Spoiler: it’s not).

That’s why I stress the importance of research through practice. We see an endless parade of sustainable innovations opportunities new fibers, fabrics, dyes and chemical treatments that claim to reduce the environmental impact of making product. A slick marketing pitch and brochure from one of our mills or factories can make anything sound credible.

Unlike picking “the right pink”, the only way to know if something is more sustainable is to follow a scientific method and prove it: the design is the hypothesis and the manufacturing process is the experiment. Our focus on research through practice requires that we pause at the end of each season and reflect on what we learned. We measure each manufacturing “experiment” and record the findings, comparing the data from our tests against the presumptions of our hypotheses to substantiate and validate the impact of our design choices.

Without this serious commitment to research through practice  without the proof sustainable fashion is just hype.

Levi’s Wellthread Recycled Denim. Photo / Supplied

Do you think the reputation of denim as “dirty” is warranted?

That’s a tricky one, and the answer depends entirely on how you choose to frame the question and define “dirty”. “Dirty” compared to what? Yes, manufacturing denim is definitely dirtier that not manufacturing denim... but that’s obvious.

The two most broadly used textile fibres are cotton and polyester.The material composition of a pair of jeans is primarily cotton, so if you ask the question “Is the cotton apparel supply chain dirtier than its polyester alternative?” I would answer “No. Absolutely not.” I think a pair of cotton jeans is a lot “cleaner” than some fossil fuel-derived track pant that sheds immeasurable quantities of microplastics into our oceans ecosystems every time you do the laundry.

If you’re asking the question “Is the denim industry “dirtier” than other cotton-based apparel sectors?”, it’s a more nuanced answer.

All cotton fibre cultivation is resource-intensive and can have negative environmental impact. Cotton is a thirsty crop that requires an extraordinary amount of water to cultivate. Conventional cotton agriculture relies heavily on pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers, which can degrade soil health and cause surface-water eutrophication.

Our understanding of denim’s “dirtiness” relative to products from other cotton apparel sectors is due primarily to fact that the denim has been studied and its impacts substantiated to a greater degree. Levi’s has made its comprehensive Life Cycle Assessments public, so I’m fully informed on a full range of impacts at each stage of the jean’s life cycle: fibre cultivation, spinning and weaving, garment construction and finishing, consumer use, etc.

I’m not aware of comparably granular public data for a pair of fleece sweats or canvas workwear. If we feel informed about denim’s “dirtiness”, it may only be relative to our collective ignorance about the impact of our anonymous yoga pants.

Another complication in determining denim’s “dirt” is the consumer. Making anything makes an impact... but we have to think about that impact in the context of use and consumption. If we each have a few favorite pairs well-worn, broken-in Levi’s that care of responsibly and wear for years and years  then no. Denim’s not too dirty. But if we’re talking about a fast consumption and overstuffed closets and daily laundering, then yes, denim’s “dirty” reputation is warranted.

Dirty or not and without regard for the relative impact of some other product we know exactly how much water we consume, how much pollution we create, and how much waste we generate. We know that we have to do better, and I love being part of the team that’s trying to figure out how.

Better Cotton Initiative cotton gin. Photo / Supplied

Since joining Levis in 2014, what developments and innovations have you been most proud of?

We’ve moved the needle on some important issues and our research-through-practice approach has generated an important body of industrial intelligence that we can scale into our main line or share with the industry.

Progress, however, isn’t a solution. Levi’s and the broader cotton-based apparel industry still consume too much water. We still generate too much waste and participate in systems of excess consumption.

The job’s only half done, and I’m pretty sure that pride’s a sin, so…

What are some challenges you’ve faced and how have you overcome them?

The biggest barriers to progress aren’t unique to Levi’s but relate, rather, to the broader consumer/retail economy  like the market product cycle; delivering high-volume, inexpensive apparel as quickly as it can be moved through the stores, with just-in-time delivery expectations and razor-thin margins, the industry rightly prioritises speed, cost, and efficiency.

Speed is achieved through creative constraints. If you want to get “the right pink” into the stores before any of your competitors, you can’t start from scratch. You leverage an available fabric, an established fit, and a proven style that your factory is already approved to make.

Cost is achieved through scale. Sharper fabric pricing requires an extended commitment to a single quality over multiple seasons. To negotiate down the cost of production-per-unit, brands have to commit to a higher quantity of units for each style. Buying more units of a style to reduce cost results in a narrower assortment, with fewer choices for the consumer.

Efficiency is achieved through consistency. Innovative fibers and novel yarns slow down our fabric looms. A new fabric or unfamiliar finishing process requires extensive testing and validation to affirm quality, comfort and performance. A new fit block or unconventional construction detail is resolved through iterative prototyping and fit assessments. Unexpected change can be complicated and inefficient.

We know that the fashion industry we have is unsustainable, and that a healthy and balanced industrial ecology will require a top-to-bottom overhaul of the whole system. We also know that overhauling the system is going to be disruptive to the business. The first generations of meaningful change will be slower, more expensive and less efficient and it’s naïve to expect otherwise.

Of course, a sustainable reinvention of the fashion design and production system is an extremely lofty challenge. It requires a disciplined commitment to research and development; innovation trajectories aligned with science-based targets that respectfully challenge the parameters of the supply chain we know.

The “supply chain we know”, however, is the best and only tool we have to perform, measure and substantiate the broad scope of experimentation necessary to deliver any meaningful reduction of our environmental impact. The supply chain that is responsible for the problem is also the essential partner we need to unlock the solutions.

READ: Preloved Clothing & Vintage Treasures That Encourage A Mindful Approach To Fashion

The mechanisms of “supply” only respond to a signal for “demand”. Our challenge has been to generate a demand signal from the business a confirmed order  for a sustainable product proposition that we guarantee will be slower, more expensive and less efficient to produce than any other segment of our conventional Levi’s Red Tab assortment.

Conventional metrics would discourage a business commitment to unprofitable production. It's only by creating an artificial but intentional demand signal that we’ve been able to activate the supply chain to perform the experimental research and development that generates the sustainability innovation that we need.

All of this is the predicating context for Levi’s Wellthread, a small collection of our most sustainably-made product. We use the Wellthread product platform as our “laboratory for progress” a place to test and validate new materials and methods for sustainable design through small-scale production with limited distribution. We set aside a small part of our product assortment, free from conventional business expectations, where we can validate (or disqualify) new sustainable components at a scale that doesn’t create risk for the business.

This research through practice design methodology has allowed us to compile an extensive body of industrial intelligence around the materials, components and sundries necessary for circular garment production. We used Wellthread product platform to develop and deliver the first iteration of our Cottonised Hemp in Spring 2019. Our learnings from that high-touch product development and limited launch is what gave us the confidence to scale Cottonised Hemp as a global product initiative and marketing message for Fall 2020.

How has Covid-19 impacted Levi’s sustainability journey?

At an operational level, the pandemic has not disrupted or diminished our focus on sustainable design. Covid-19 has caused extreme disruption for the apparel industry and introduced radical uncertainty across the retail landscape. Levi’s response has been to double-down on our commitment to positive change. For example  our global fall campaign is focused on our brand’s values, including sustainable products features  like hemp and Tencel®.

In July, we introduced our most sustainable jean ever. We partnered with ReNewcell, an innovative recycling technology that recovers discarded jeans and converts them into a new, high-quality cellulosic fiber through a new eco-friendly chemical process.

We’ve mixed this new recycled denim fiber with organic cotton to create a 60/40 percent blend that brings together natural regenerative farming practices with advanced sustainable material recovery. Before the launch, we sent one of our jeans back to ReNewcell and confirmed they could be recycled for use as a third-generation material.

Coordinating a sustainability initiative with this level of high-touch complexity would have been difficult at time and at any company. In this case, the detailed product management, marketing activation and global retail launch activity happened on schedule (without missing a beat) while everyone involved was working from home, under lock-down conditions at the height of the pandemic in the United States.

Now, more than ever, we believe it’s important to make jeans that matter.

Levi’s Wellthread Recycled Denim. Photo / Supplied

Big multinational companies can be notoriously slow-moving and hampered by legacy systems — how have you been able to fast-track change and improvements at Levi's?

In one of the previous questions I described a research through practice design methodology that prioritises sustainability impact over speed, cost, or efficiency. I believe that effective and impactful sustainable product innovation takes time.

Though we certainly don’t drag our feet if we think we’ve got a viable opportunity to create meaningful change, we also don’t rush new opportunities to market at scale until we’re confident in their value and impact.

How is Levi’s ensuring their jeans last a long time, and what is Levi’s doing to educate and promote the principles of care and repair?

From its inception, the value of Levi’s brand has been predictated on a promise of durability. The “two horse test”, printed on the back patch of our jeans, represents our commitment to quality product with lasting value.

At Levi’s, product Integrity isn’t an isolated function and we all hold ourselves accountable to maintain our high standards for product quality. Our product integrity specialists are indispensable partners in the design and development process.

Our whole lives we’ve been inundated with ads from detergent brands encouraging us to habitually over-wash our clothes. The average water impact from home laundering for every pair of Levi’s is 890 litres of fresh water, and consumer care accounts for 37 percent of the jean’s carbon impact. Worse yet, washing and drying your jeans degrades their strength and shortens their useful life.

We try to influence consumer’s behavior to support more sustainable consumer care practices. Every pair of Levi’s has a “Care Tag for the Planet”, where we ask consumers to wash their jeans on cold when necessary, to line dry them, and to donate them for re-sale once they’re no longer wanted.

We become attached to our favorite pair of jeans — they become part of our lives, like a trusted friend or good dog. It’s import that we know how to take care of them. Beyond responsible laundry practices, we want the inform and empower consumer to extend the useful life of their jeans to repair and customisation.

We continue to extend our Levi’s Tailor Shop program into to new markets. With our Tailor Shops, we bring the needles and threads and sewing machines out into the open. Our trained tailors are there to provide their denim expertise to enthusiastic shoppers. They can execute personalized fit modifications, as well offering customisation and repair services for vintage garments.

Consumers can also access Tailor Shop expertise through video tutorials with step-by-step DIY repair instructions and embellishment hacks — available our website, app, and social media channels. We believe that when a consumer is personally invested in repair and maintenance of their favorite jeans, they’ll be more likely to care for them better and own them longer.

What are some innovations from Wellthread that have been rolled out across the mainline?

We will continue to use Wellthread as our “laboratory for progress”, where we experiment and learn at a small industrial scale. Once we’ve proven that a new material or sustainable process is viable and credible, we are committed using the full force of the Levi Strauss supply chain to bring that good idea to scale.

Our soft cottonised hemp is an example of that commitment. We launched our soft-processed hemp in two Wellthread styles as part of our Spring 2019 collection. After 18 months of progress and refinement, our soft hemp is now a major sustainability message for the brand.  It’s now woven throughout the Fall 202 men’s and women’s collections and is available around the world.

Levi's cottonised hemp jeans. Photo / Supplied

Logistically, how does Levi’s collect and process the jeans it recycles? And what happens to non-textile components like rivets, zips and buttons when a pair of jeans is recycled?

There are two main categories of fibre-level textile recycling, and Levi’s doesn’t directly participate in either one.

The most common type is mechanical recycling called garnering. In this process, the fabric from a garment is cut into small, even-sized pieces which are then chewed-up and pulled apart in a garnet machine a device that looks and operates like a giant coffee grinder. This process is intended to return a garment to its original material state (loose cotton fibers) which can then be re-introduced to the supply chain as a virgin material alternative.

The extreme force it takes to un-weave the fabric and un-spin the yarns damages and breaks the individual fibers resulting in a very low quality, short-staple cotton that’s weaker than virgin cotton and looks a lot like dryer lint. In the mechanical recycling process, metal components like rivets, zippers and metal shank buttons have to be manually removed before the shredding starts.

There’s a growing movement away from mechanical recycling as advanced chemical recycling technologies are entering the market. This new generation of recycling alternatives are able to chemically deconstruct cotton fabrics, reducing them into a cellulosic pulp that can be processed and extruded to yield a high-quality second? generation fiber.

With this type of recycling system, metal sundries remain un-dissolved and are recovered at the end of the process. Levi’s recent launch of a Wellthread jean made with a blend of organic cotton and Circulose – a brand new fiber type made with chemically recovered old jeans.

Mechanical and chemical textile recycling require highly specialized and complex machinery and chemistry systems. We work directly with innovative companies in the recycling industries to help accelerate the commercialization of promising new technologies like Circulose.

The collection and processing logistic, however, is not where Levi’s can add value. To achieve a successful and efficient recycling system for glass bottles and aluminum cans, we don’t make it the consumer’s job to toss their empty Steinlager bottles back to Lion, and then go drop their aluminum Tui empties back on DB’s doorstep. Glass, aluminum, paper, and most plastics are recovered for recycling by a municipal sanitation infrastructure. Now we need advocacy for the development of a commensurate recovery system to process and valorise discarded clothing.

How does Water<Less reduce water use?

Water is a precious resource, and Levi’s has been working to reduce our use of water for finishing for nearly a decade through our Water<Less initiative. Through a careful recalibration of the garment finishing process, we’ve changed our industrial finishing formulae and reduced our water use as much as 95 percent  saving more than 3.5 billion liters of freshwater since launching the Water<Less program.

Photo / Supplied

You’ve been vocal in the past about consumerism being inherently unsustainable — how can people be encouraged to buy less, but buy better, and what is Levi's doing to support this?

The biggest challenge is unlocking a business model that allows the fashion industry to thrive without relying on unnecessary and unsustainable consumption. We need to figure out how to do more with much, much less — and the fundamental design attributes of a great pair of jeans show us how that can be done. 

The beauty of denim is that it changes and evolves over time. Your favorite jeans today probably look a lot different than they did the day you bought them. My favorite pair of 501s achieved peak beauty after about nine years of regular wear. We expect the look and feel of our favorite jeans to change over time. Unlike almost any other sector of the apparel industry, time adds value to our jeans.

I think the broader fashion industry could learn something from denim design methodologies. Instead of design strategies that invest a garment with a single season of relevance, fashion designers should pursue design strategies that cultivate emotional durability through lasting value and aesthetic evolution.

Do you think success metrics (like profit and growth) need to change for the industry to become sustainable?

Yes. But re-writing the financial performance indicators of a large multinational is not necessarily the appropriate purview of a fashion designer. I would love to design toward a more meaningful goal that high-profit margin and unconstrained growth — but re-writing the rules of the game won’t work if we’re the only ones playing by them.

New rules and a level playing requires a fair and engaged referee — government.

I don’t want to deflect our corporate social responsibility or excuse the bad behavior of big brands and corporations, but we’ve got an unresolved and problematic tension between the demand signal and the supply motive that’s baked into “free market capitalism” that has to be resolved.

Corporations exist to meet consumer demands, not to constrain or deny them. So long as there’s an unambiguous demand signal for ever cheaper and more abundant clothing, brands will compete to provide a profitable supply, and that competition is wreaking havoc on the environment.

Despite all the noise about an emerging sustainable consumption paradigm, do we really expect this new conscious consumer to stop shopping for a bargain? Are we following the progress of some exciting new business model that ignores consumer demand and acts against its own financial interests, thereby becoming wildly successful?

Yes, consumers want to behave more responsibly. Yes, companies want to prioritise sustainability and social responsibility over EBIT [a company's earnings before interest tax] and growth. With the consumers and the brands, we’ve got a three-legged stool that keeps tipping over because there’s a missing leg. Where is the government?

Where are the trade policies that establish preferential import duty for apparel made with “benefit fibers” – organic, recycled? Where are the tariffs to incentivise the importation of apparel that meets the established standards for circularity?

Where’s the regulatory prohibition against garment landfill waste, or the federal tax incentives to promote the development of for-profit fiber recovery infrastructure at the state or municipal level? Where are the research grants and private/public partnerships structured to accelerate the research and development for the next generation of advanced textile recycling technology?

For a business to be more sustainable, their success metrics need to change. But a level playing field requires a context shift for all business and all consumers, and that breadth of change requires smart, progressive and aggressive changes to policy and regulation.

On the sustainable design front, what are you most excited about right now?

I’m excited by the energy and enthusiasm that’s pushing “sustainable design” forward in the broader fashion conversation. There’s still a dearth of legitimate expertise in the space and no real source of truth — but we’re making progress.

But to be candid, I’m not motivated by excitement. Right now, my professional momentum is driven by fear.

[Below is] a photograph looking south from the balcony of my apartment in San Francisco. The photo was taken on Sept 9th, 2020, just before noon. The skies over the whole Bay Area were dark red and orange, filled with choking smoke and ash. Climate change is not an abstract concept. Its effects are becoming the daily reality for populations all over the world.

I work for a big company that’s part of a big industry, and that big industry is responsible for the substantive degradation of the planet's natural resources and environmental health. So my team and I try to bring all the energy and intelligence we can muster to the daily search for solutions — however big or small they may be.

Photo / Paul Dillinger

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