Jeans are the bedrock of many of our wardrobes – but, unfortunately, they frequently come with a high environmental cost, too. Often made from conventional cotton, they can require a huge amount of energy and water to produce, not least because of the intensive treatment and dyeing processes they tend to go through.
That’s why Levi’s has been working to make its offering more sustainable, with its iconic 501s the latest design to receive an eco-friendly overhaul. “It’s a really exciting moment for us,” Paul Dillinger, vice president of global product innovation at the brand, tells Vogue via Zoom from his San Francisco home. “We’ve been working towards this goal of bringing true circularity to the main line [for a long time]. The idea that we could bring it to the 501, the marquee product of the brand, this 149-year-old design – that’s a big deal because you don’t get to mess around with the 501 very often.”
Circularity refers to a system where products can be reused, recycled or returned to the earth (by being biodegradable or compostable) – a concept that’s becoming increasingly important for fashion as it looks to reduce its environmental impact. Designed with this in mind, the new 501s are made from a blend of certified organic cotton, sustainably-sourced wood pulp and Circulose – a textile made by Swedish company Renewcell by chemically recycling cotton textile waste. Attention to detail is key: the threads, pockets, labels and patches are all made from 100 per cent cotton to allow for the jeans to be recycled once they’re finished with.
“True circularity [means you] have to make sure that you’ve designed [a product] in a way that means it can go back into its own system,” Dillinger continues. “We’ve actually sent the jeans back to Renewcell and we’re confident it can keep [being recycled] as it needs to be.”
It’s taken a long time to reach this point, with the 501s being the first Levi’s jeans to meet the requirements set out by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Jeans Redesign initiative (other participants include the likes of Tommy Hilfiger, Gap and H&M). “If we want to create a fashion industry that can thrive in the long term, then we have to shift from the take-make-waste approach to a circular economy designed to eliminate waste and pollution, circulate materials and products, and regenerate nature,” Laura Balmond, lead of the Make Fashion Circular programme at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, says. “The reason we picked jeans [for the redesign programme] is that they are an iconic product that can be used to demonstrate what’s possible for the rest of the fashion industry.”
Still, there‘s plenty room for improvement, as Dillinger readily admits. The new 501s currently contain only around 16 per cent recycled cotton, a figure that Levi’s is hoping to improve on. “The quantity of cotton that we’ve integrated in this form doesn’t shed; it doesn’t weaken,” he explains of the need to balance product longevity with the use of recycled material. “In the future, we have the opportunity to increase that recycled cotton content and eventually it will become probably 40 per cent or 50 per cent recycled – that’s the path of development here.”
The dyeing process is another area that Levi’s is focusing on, with chemical usage being a key issue when it comes to the recycling of garments. Currently, the jeans don’t use any chemicals on the Zero Discharge Of Hazardous Chemicals’s manufacturing restricted substance list, as per the Jeans Redesign guidelines, but Levi’s is now exploring natural alternatives, partnering with Tennessee-based company Stony Creek Colors to pilot the use of plant-based indigo.
Of course, creating a more eco-friendly and circular product is only part of the story: the way that customers use and take care of their jeans is also essential when it comes to sustainability. “We’re going to ask customers to buy better, to wear longer, and then to care for things in a nicer way – to wash things on cold, to hang them to dry, to wash infrequently,” Dillinger says. “Then we’re going to ask them if you’re not interested in the clothes, can you exchange them with a friend? Can you resell them? Can you do anything but throw them away?”
Overhauling its iconic 501s will undoubtedly bring the importance of sustainability to a wider audience. Ultimately, though, it’s still about maintaining that longevity that the 501 has always had. “I hope it gets people to notice that there’s an important sea change happening in the industry,” Dillinger concludes. “[But] if they don’t notice, I don’t really mind. Because they’re just going to get a great high quality 501 that’s going to last forever.”