While industries across the board are becoming more frugal in their use of raw materials and slashing carbon emissions, one sector is languishing at the bottom of the pile.

The fashion industry is notorious for its profligate use of water, energy and other resources – a reputation only matched by its woeful record on recycling; in the United States 85 per cent of discarded textiles end up in landfill or incinerated.

But Levi’s, one of the world’s most recognisable fashion brands, is making a concerted effort to lower its environmental footprint with a number of visionary initiatives.

Apart from switching to more sustainably grown cotton, the company is experimenting with a number of more environmentally friendly fabrics such as cottonised hemp and tencel, a soft fibre made from sustainably harvested wood.

Paul Dillinger, the head of global innovation at Levi’s, has led the company to take a multi-pronged approach to embracing recycling to lower its environmental footprint.

“There is no one single solution to sustainability,” Dillinger told an industry conference in early 2021.” There’s just got to be a lot of different trials.

“It takes companies like mine, and all of yours, to invest some energy not in that six-month cycle of fashion, but in this, in a three, four-year R&D process to unlock some of these opportunities, and when we do unlock them, the promise has to be to share them.”

Water is key

Paul Dillinger, head of global innovation, Levi’s. Photo: Kjell Ruben

As most consumers know growing cotton requires large quantities of water and one of Dillinger’s first goals was to encourage his suppliers to dramatically cut their water use.

The Levi’s Water<Less program is estimated to have saved more than 4.2 billion litres of water since its inception in 2011, as well as recycled more than 9.6 billion litres. 

How? Through various new processes, one of which is using tumble dryers with golf balls and old bottle tops in the drums, to finish the denim, instead of the conventional water-intensive approach.

Recycling of garments is a major global challenge

According to Dillinger, citing McKinsey & Co data, about six out of 10 garments are being thrown away or incinerated in their first year of production, which means that “60 per cent of our total industry output is unnecessary if you’re going to buy it and throw it away with the first year”.

One of the reasons that so much discarded clothing ends up in landfill or council incinerators is that most commercial fabric is a blend of natural fibre, man-made filaments and other materials – making recycling complex and time-consuming.

When recycling of denim started, it was usually broken down in a shredder, re-spun into thread and then woven into new cloth. The problem with this method is that the fibres of shredded denim are extremely short which makes the resulting thread rougher and not as strong, leading to a fabric which is stiffer and weaker than regular denim. This low quality was not what Levi’s wanted.

However, Levi’s partnership with re:newcell, the innovators behind Circulose®,  has enabled it to create a high-quality recycled denim that uses a combination of cotton from worn-out jeans and organic cotton.

Global warming

Apart from its poor record on recycling and sustainability, the fashion industry is a major contributor to global warming, responsible for an estimated 10 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions – textile production alone is estimated to release 1.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere annually.

Levi’s has therefore set itself some impressive environmental targets, including a pledge to transition to 100 per cent renewable energy at its plants by 2025.

But Dillinger argues that in order to achieve the type of sea-change that Levi’s believes is necessary, the company must also take consumers on the same sustainable journey.

“I think if people understood how bad a dryer is for clothes or where their discarded jeans end up if they don’t dispose of them thoughtfully, they would act differently,” he says.

To foster this relationship, Levi’s has introduced Tailor Shops to many of its stores globally, including one in Melbourne Central, where customers can take their jeans to be customised or repaired.

Levi’s Tailor Shop

It’s estimated that if we wear our clothes twice x as long, we’ll reduce our negative environmental impact by 44 per cent, so teaching consumers to fix or repair what they already own rather than discarding and buying new, we can and will have a huge impact on the environment. We all need to be more conscious in the way we consume fashion.

Beyond that, it’s about buying pieces for your wardrobe that are going to last the test of time. That aren’t made to be worn once, but rather a lifetime. And I think we can all agree that Levi’s are made to be worn – and that’s only reinforced by the huge Levi’s vintage market.