When you wear the newest pair of Levi’s, you’ll also be wearing someone’s old Levis: they’re partially made from old, recycled jeans. They’re also fully circular: When they eventually wear out, they can be recycled again into new material for new jeans, using the same innovative technology, developed by a Swedish startup called Renewcell, that was used to produce them.
For the apparel brand, which has been working with the startup for more than two years, incorporating recycled fabric is key to improving sustainability. In a lifecycle analysis of its products, “the overwhelming impact is in the creation of the raw material itself,” says Paul Dillinger, vice president of global product innovation at Levi Strauss and Co.
Growing the cotton to make a pair of jeans uses more than 2,500 liters of water, for example; over the lifetime of the jeans, that’s more water than consumers would use washing the clothing repeatedly. By using fabric made in part from recycled cotton, the water footprint—along with the carbon and chemical footprint—shrinks.
Older fabric recycling technology, which chopped cotton into smaller pieces, didn’t work as well because it degraded the value of the material. But Renewcell’s tech reconstructs the cotton differently, dissolving it and then forcing the pulp-like material through tiny nozzles to form higher-quality, longer fibers. The end result, a material branded as “Circulose,” is lyocell—a form of rayon—rather than cotton. Because it has a different texture, the designers chose to make the new jeans with a blended textile that also uses organic cotton.
Levi Strauss is now testing ways to increase the percentage of Circulose in each pair of pants. (Right now, the jeans are 40% Circulose, and the Circulose itself is made half from wood pulp and half from recycled clothing.) The jeans are also designed to be more easily recycled themselves, with trims and tags that would normally be made from other materials now made from cotton that can also be recycled.
Considering there is no shortage of old clothing to make new material, this is a solution we hope to see more fashion companies adopt.