Chances are, if you’re American, you’ve owned a pair of Levi’s at some point in your lifetime. In fact, you might have a few beloved pairs hanging in your closet right now. The Levi’s name has become synonymous with all things blue jean, and it’s a legacy that’s grown up with America, established in 167 years ago in San Francisco at the height of the Gold Rush, when the state of California was just three years old. America herself had only been a nation for 77 years, and when German immigrant Levi Strauss and his friend, a tailor, Jacob Davis figured out how to use copper rivets to strengthen the work pants they were making for miners, Levi Strauss & Co. struck gold. Nowadays, the company sells 450 million pairs of jeans in the United States every year, and just one pair of Levi 501’s requires 37 separate sewing operations. It also requires gallons upon gallons of water — three days’ worth of one U.S. household’s total water to be exact. From growing the cotton to dying the denim to future machine washing, we’re out 1,000 gallons of water for those fly Levi’s.
That’s too much water, says the denim maker and they’ve come up with a clever solution — upcycling. With the launch of its Wellthread line, Levi’s is making sustainable denim in true fashion. The magic is in a marriage of organic cotton and Circulose, a material made from, wait for it, worn-out Levi’s. Two cuts will pioneer the Wellthread line, for women a High Loose, and a 502 for men. They’re partnering with the startup re:newcell which makes the Circulose fabric from discarded cotton textiles, breaking them down in water to create a slurry mixture that then becomes a sheet of Circulose as it dries. The product is made into viscose fiber and by the time it ends up in your new pair of jeans, they’re fully recyclable, thread, trims, the whole lot of it. So denim, at least Levi’s denim, is forever.
Paul Dillinger, vice president of global product innovation at Levi Strauss & Co., says “The overwhelming impact is in the creation of the raw material itself.” This process of upcycling effectively shrinks the Levi’s water footprint, and their carbon and chemical footprints along with it. It’s a full circle solution designed to model four guiding principles: Materials, People, Environment and Process. Levi’s Wellthread jeans are made in Worker Well-Being facilities with rain-fed Cottonized Hemp. Their Water<Less technologies, which they use in 67 percent of their products, has allowed them to save 800 million gallons of water and recycle more than 500 million gallons. And they’re using as many recycled materials as they can. The good news is, there’s no shortage of old clothing to recycle. Every year, Americans throw out upwards of 26 billion pounds of textiles, so with the help of Cotton’s Blue Jeans Go Green program, Levi’s is saving old denim from landfills by turning it into insulation for homes and buildings.
From their 19th-century copper rivets to their 21st-century Circulose, Levi’s is all about repairing, reimagining, and recycling at the tailor shop. The company, which currently employs 6,000 people in the U.S. and over 15,000 around the world, is looking at every part of the process, starting with where the cotton is grown, and more importantly, how. In 2010, Levi’s launched the Better Cotton Initiative, which trains farmers to use less water, pesticides, insecticides, and synthetic fertilizers in growing their cotton plants. Today, over 20 percent of the cotton in Levi’s apparel is Better Cotton, and they are on track to reach their goal of 100 percent by the end of this year.
With reported revenue of 5.8 billion in 2019 and 50,000 retail locations across more than 110 countries, Levi’s is firmly positioned as a global leader in jean manufacturing, and it takes its role seriously when it comes to sustainability. Back in 1991, Levi’s set their Terms of Engagement — a code of conduct to guide ethical production throughout their supply chain. The fashion industry followed suit, with many apparel companies adopting similar plans. Sustainability and ethical practices require full transparency and today, you can go on a detailed scientific journey through the life-cycle of a pair of jeans on the Levi Strauss & Co. site.
Or, if you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the world’s oldest pair of jeans in their archives in San Francisco. Straight out of 1879, the “XX” pair is currently housed in a guarded fire-proof safe with an estimated worth of $150,000. Eventually, if Levi’s new Wellthread line has anything to do with it, you won’t be able to track the world’s oldest pair of jeans, you just might be wearing them.