Paul Dillinger is the VP & Head of Global Product Innovation and Premium Collection Design at Levi Strauss & Co. In layman’s terms, he’s a fashion designer—he studied fashion design for his BFA and MFA. Levi’s follows the regular six-month fashion cycle with spring and fall clothing lines. Paul’s job, though, is to focus on Levi’s future.
Paul says, “Sometimes the really big changes, they need a little more time to be cultivated, researched, developed, and thoughtfully executed...rather than designing for next fall or next spring, I'm thinking about a systems-based approach to changing the design methodology entirely.”
What is Circular Fashion?
Circular fashion is when new products are built out of prior versions of the same product. Rather than using old jeans for insulation materials, for example, a pair of old Levi’s would be broken down and used to make new Levi’s.
Companies have to think well in advance about how products are constructed. They start with knowing everything about the product, from the raw material through to the moment it is no longer conventionally useful.
Levi’s knows that each pair of jeans they produce uses 3781 liters of fresh water. 68% of that water is used to grow the raw material, cotton, while the other 32% is from the actual production. By putting their jeans into a circular system, they don’t need to use more water each time for the raw material.
When old products are recycled into new goods, the new version of the product must be made out of a single or like materials, from the fabric to the labels to the buttons. That way, it can be recycled over and over again.
Take clothing items made from recycled plastic. Most of the time, they aren’t 100% recycled plastic. The plastic thread is woven together with cotton, polyester, or other fabrics. It’s great that the plastic was recycled once, but it can never be recycled again. It is impossible to separate it from the fabric weave.
“A small area of Levi's is focused on that kind of highly disciplined deconstruction of the material, assembly, and reconfiguration,” says Paul. So far, Levi’s has created circular recovery systems for nylon, polyester, and pure cotton.
Circular fashion systems are “offered up as a promise that you can continue with your rampant consumption and excessive growth,” says Paul. If done correctly, though, circular fashion puts real limitations on what products you can make.
Paul explains, “If you do it right and make a true garment that’s truly viable for circular recovery and redeployment, the complexity actually constraints the industry. The circular industry wouldn't be able to double its size with zero impact. What it would actually be is half the size and the right size impact.”
Levi’s Most Sustainable Denim Yet: WellThread™
Since 2015, Levi’s has worked to produce a more sustainable version of their classic jeans. Their WellThread™ collection is made with 60% organic cotton and 40% Circulose®.
Circulose® is comprised of both recycled denim and sustainably sourced viscose. It’s produced by Swedish company re:newcell. Since 2012, re:newcell has been a leader in recycling textile waste.
Before re:newcell’s innovative process, fabric had to be unwoven, unspun, and chopped up for a garment to be recycled. That process created very short yarn, which had to be spun with virgin material to make new fabric.
These short strands slough off of the garment as dryer lint. If you started with jeans made from 15% recycled material, you would eventually have jeans that were 15% lighter.
Re:newcell’s process pulps the old denim down into cellulose, blends it with responsibly-sourced wood pulp, and weaves it into a filament similar to rayon. The end result is a strong and soft fiber.
Levi’s takes the Circulose®, blends it with organic cotton, and makes their WellThread™ jeans from it. The jeans are just as strong and durable as Levi’s regular pair with the added benefit of good materials for the planet.
Lastly, Levi’s tested the circularity of the product. A pair of WellThread™ jeans can be broken down and recycled again by re:newcell, meaning that the jeans are genuinely in a circular, closed-loop system.
The Importance of Beautiful, Sustainable Clothing
Many of us believe that we can either have a beautiful product OR an ethical product. Paul points out that this is a false dichotomy. Ethical isn’t the opposite of beautiful. Ethical is the opposite of unethical. Consumer demand for well-made, beautiful, ethical products is what the industry needs to focus on.
“At the end of the day, if it isn't something that you love, if it doesn't flatter, if it's not comfortable, you're not gonna wear it. It doesn't matter how many trees or how many gallons of water you save. If it's just another purchase that is going to sit in the back the closet not doing anything, that's as unsustainable as it gets,” says Paul.
That’s why Paul is so passionate about circular fashion. Every day, consumers spend money on things they don’t really need. If they’re spending that money, the product needs to be meaningful and making the world better.
Additionally, consumers should think about what clothes they’re reaching for over and over during the pandemic. The most sustainable consumer action is just to buy less overall! Quality, durable, sustainable, comfortable, and flattering clothing should be the foundation of your closet.
“We've realigned what constitutes premium, where we find value, you know, and I think a lot of people would rather have a great pair of Levi's jeans that they know is going to last a long time. Valuing the durable, authentic quality, that's what they want to celebrate, not necessarily the of the moment jean with the flashiest back pocket or the most pronounced bootcut,” says Paul.
The Thirst for a More Ethical, Sustainable World
Paul was in a meeting with Levi’s president about a sustainable project and was getting pushback. So he did the only thing that could show what sustainable projects mean to him: he took away his boss’s water bottle.
Paul says, “Anything other than this movement towards more sustainable consumption will deprive this planet of water. When one jean equals 3781 liters of fresh water, and there are nearly 750 million people experiencing severe thirst from lack of access to drinking water on a daily basis, you don't need to get excited about fashion. There's simply an imperative to change the way we consume.”