Levi's Is Working On Jeans That Are Legitimately 100% Recycled

Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images.
Since Levi's was founded in the mid-1800s, it's been an innovative brand — and it's tried to keep things cutting-edge since. In the past year, for example, the brand used customer feedback to improve its product, and recently pioneered the (very successful) wedgie fit. A century-and-a-half in the business, and the company's still making denim history: The brand is working on a pair of its signature slim-fit 511 jeans made entirely out of recycled cotton — the first of its kind, Fast Company reports.

While the tags on Levi's Waste<Less jeans touted its "garbage" make-up in 2012 (as the fabric was partly composed of recycled plastic bottles), this special pair of 511s is the real deal. Each pair is made from approximately five once-loved, now-repurposed cotton T-shirts. The denim brand enlisted Seattle-based startup Evrnu to transform the old tees into new, workable materials. Using its patent-pending textile technology, Evrmi dissolved the waste to create new thread, which would then be used to make the jeans. (You can read a step-by-step of the process on Evrnu's website.)

Levi's introduced its first Water<Less collection in 2011, which reduced the water usage in each pair by an average of 28%, and a follow-up Waste<Less range the year after, along with a commitment to educate manufacturers and customers, alike, about their water footprints. (The brand also expanded its incentive program, by which people can recycle old jeans, last year.)

Given how much water it takes to make a single pair of jeans from start to finish (on top of the pollution it creates), a number of denim companies are reevaluating how much their manufacturing practices are making an impact in terms of consumption. AG also pledged to reduce its water consumption during production, as well as to maximize its use of resources by repurposing scraps. G Star Raw has been doing its part with a particular focus on aquatic waste for the past few years with its Raw for the Oceans line, comprised of jeans made from bionic yarn that contains recycled ocean plastic (two million plastic bottles and 1,000 tons of plastic debris were used in the line just in 2015); soon, all of the brand's offerings will include recycled ocean plastic.

Before, "recycled" clothing generally meant simply deconstructing garments and shredding fabric — which lessens the quality, and also requires new materials to make up the difference. With this treatment, Levi's and Evrnu flipped the script. "By changing the idea from just shredding up the garments to actually kind of melting them, dissolving them down to their molecular structure of cellulose, and reconstituting the fiber, it eliminates the pollutants," Paul Dillinger, head of global product innovation at Levi Strauss & Co., told Fast Company. "We're re-extruding it as a continuous filament fiber, so it doesn't have reduced strength — it actually has improved strength quality."

For now, this ultra recycled pair is just a prototype, so you might not see it on shelves anytime soon, but it's something the company is working toward. "Our aspiration is to build a pair of Levi's jeans that are just as beautiful and strong as the original," Stacy Flynn, CEO of Evrnu, explained in a press release. "We’re making great progress toward that goal."

A pair of completely recycled jeans would use 98% less water than virgin cotton products, according to Evrnu, and the impact of this reduction could affect other types of fashion production, as well. "By tackling water conservation through new fiber innovation, the apparel industry has the potential to significantly reduce its water footprint," Dillinger said. "As technologies such as Evrnu evolve over time, there will be greater opportunities to accelerate the pace of change toward a closed-loop apparel industry." So, even if it takes a while to come to fruition, truly, fully recyclable denim could be a game changer for the environment — and those would be some really good jeans.

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