Levi’s Is Upcycling the Liquified Remains of Old Jeans

Levi's sustainable

The denim industry is fraught with environmental problems. This is largely because denim is made with cotton, a pesticide-fed, resource-intensive crop. In fact, it takes around 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 one day). But Levi’s may have found a piece of the solution. The brand has partnered with Swedish company Renewcell to upcycle old denim into new jeans.

It seems simple at first, taking something old and transforming it into something new. But working out how to effectively shred and chemically dissolve denim, while removing buttons, zippers, and filtering out contaminants and materials like nylon and polyester, has, unsurprisingly, taken Renewcell quite some time. A decade, to be precise. But it’s got there. The company’s innovative process produces a cellulose similar to wood pulp-based viscose, named Circulose.

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

The brand is now using Circulose in its iconic 501 jeans, alongside organic cotton. In a bid to make Renewcell’s job easier, Levi’s also removed synthetic materials from the 501 design, including polyester. This means that Renewcell can recycle the denim over and over again. 

Renewcell’s innovative process produces a cellulose similar to wood pulp-based viscose. | Renewcell

Fashion takes sustainable steps

Levi’s new sustainable 501s are not a silver bullet for its environmental impact. The brand will have to ensure its jeans are actually recycled instead of thrown into the landfill. Around the world, 92 million tons of textile waste is produced every year. But it has made a start by offering recycling drop-off schemes in its stores and outlets.

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

Last year, fast fashion giant Zara revealed a party dress collection made with recycled carbon emissions. The innovative fabric, created by carbon recycling startup LanzaTech, was made through fermentation. Last August, activewear giant Lululemon teamed up with biotechnology startup Genomatica to make nylon from fermented plant sugar. The material isn’t biodegradable, but its more environmentally-friendly production could cut CO2 emissions considerably. 

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