Levi’s recycles the liquefied remains of old jeans

The denim industry is facing environmental issues. That’s largely because denim is made with cotton, a crop fueled by pesticides and resource-intensive. In fact, it takes about 10,000 liters of water to grow enough cotton for just one pair of jeans (that’s about 65 times the amount an average person uses in a day). But Levi’s may have found part of the solution. The brand has partnered with Swedish company Renewcell to upcycle old jeans into new jeans.

It seems simple at first, taking something old and turning it into something new. But figuring out how to effectively shred and dissolve denim, while removing buttons, zippers and filtering out contaminants and materials like nylon and polyester, unsurprisingly took Renewcell some time. A decade, to be precise. But it happened there. The company’s innovative process produces a viscose-like cellulose made from wood pulp, called Circulose.

Levi’s can then take the Circulose and trade it into their supply chain. After a few experimental capsule collections, the major denim brand has committed to the innovation of Renewcell for the long term. “We were able to prove that Circulose was strong and durable enough to meet our denim standards,” Paul Dillinger, Levi’s global product innovation manager, told Fast Company.

The brand now uses Circulose in its iconic 501 jeans, alongside organic cotton. In an effort to make Renewcell’s job easier, Levi’s has also removed synthetic materials from the 501 design, including polyester. This means Renewcell can recycle denim again and again.

Renewcell’s innovative process produces viscose-like cellulose from wood pulp. | Renew

Fashion takes sustainable action

Levi’s new durable 501s aren’t a magic bullet for its environmental impact. The brand will have to ensure that its jeans are actually recycled instead of being thrown into the landfill. Worldwide, 92 million tons of textile waste are produced each year. But it started by offering recycling collection programs in its stores and outlets.

The iconic denim brand is not alone in turning to innovation in an attempt to reduce its impact on the planet. Wrangler recently unveiled jeans with regenerated cellulose and recycled textile waste.

Last year, fast fashion giant Zara unveiled a collection of party dresses made with recycled carbon emissions. The innovative fabric, created by carbon recycling startup LanzaTech, was made by fermentation. Last August, sportswear giant Lululemon teamed up with biotech start-up Genomatica to make nylon from fermented plant sugar. The material is not biodegradable, but its more environmentally friendly production could significantly reduce CO2 emissions.

“We really can’t afford to wait,” said Lululemon CEO Calvin McDonald. “We need to make these immediate improvements while simultaneously working on next-generation materials.”

About the Author

Editor-in-Chief, UK | Southsea, UK Charlotte writes about sustainable beauty, fashion, food and culture. She holds a bachelor’s degree in history and a postgraduate certificate in cultural heritage.