This newest pair of Levi's started as five old T-shirts. Using a new fabric-recycling technology, Seattle-based startup Evrnu worked with Levi's to dissolve the used clothing into a new, high-quality thread. That thread was then used to make the new pants. It's a process that could ultimately start to replace water-intensive cotton grown in the field with cotton saved from discarded clothes.
In the past, recycling clothing has usually involved just "downcycling" it into something of lower value. Jeans, for example, might end up as insulation in a building. But it hasn't really been possible to turn old cotton into something good enough to make a brand-new garment out of.
One challenge is that clothes are usually made from multiple materials. Interfacings, thread, zipper tapes, and even pockets might be made out of a synthetic fabric. If someone tries to recycle a pair of jeans using conventional methods, the brown thread won't be bleachable or dyeable, and will show up as a "pollutant" in the final product.
Traditional fabric recycling also makes the thread much weaker. "It really just is shredding the fabric," says Paul Dillinger, head of global product innovation at Levi Strauss & Co. "It doesn't delicately unweave that which was woven, it really just chews it up." Because the thread is so weak, only a small percentage of conventionally recycled cotton can be used in garments, and it has to be mixed in with new fibers.
The new process solves both problems. The technology fully dissolves and separates various materials so they can be turned into something new—and even stronger than it originally was.
"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," says Dillinger. "We're re-extruding it as a continuous filament fiber, so it doesn't have reduced strength—it actually has improved strength quality."
These prototype jeans don't look or feel exactly as they will if they go on sale. Levi's goal is to make recycled jeans that look and feel no different than the jeans they make now. "Our goal is to create a consumer experience that is wholly consistent with the jean you already know," he says. The company partnered with Evrnu early in the process, to help the startup develop technology to be able to deliver the specs that Levi's will eventually need as a customer.
Making cotton this way uses an estimated 98% less water than growing virgin cotton on farms, and also dramatically reduces the carbon footprint. The chemicals used to dissolve old clothing are fully reused in a closed loop, so the new process doesn't create pollution.
As agriculture around the world faces more challenges, from drought to climate change, Levi's sees the new recycled cotton as something that can slowly begin to replace virgin cotton.
"My hope is that we foster this new technology and get it to the place that it is prepared to scale up as the cotton industry needs to scale down," Dillinger says. "As the necessary and likely conversion from cotton cultivation to food crop cultivation happens, we'll have this new technology that we'll be able to start filling in those gaps."
It wouldn't happen immediately; Levi's also wants to give farmers time to adapt, so they don't suddenly lose their livelihoods. "What we're looking to have is a technology that can give us that flexibility, sort of future-proofing the supply chain and mitigating some risk, and doing it in a way that is restorative to the environment," he says.
Of course, making clothing this way also solves another problem: The world now throws out more clothing than ever before. In the U.S. alone, at least 11 million tons of textile waste ends up in landfills every year.
UPDATE: After we published this story, Evrnu, the fabric manufacturer, revealed to us that jean prototype actually includes some virgin cotton and is not 100% recycled. Levi's did not include this fact in our interviews or in their press material, which states that the jeans were "created from approximately five discarded cotton T-shirts."
"The crux of our news was the breakthrough innovation in post-consumer recycling technology and the potential to create garments made from regenerated cotton yarn," says a Levi Strauss & Co. spokesperson. "In the future we see garments made purely from Evrnu fiber. This announcement was meant to spotlight on the innovation behind this technology and it may be misleading to focus on the prototype vs. the potential."
In a conversation after the article was published, Evrnu said that the majority of the fabric in the prototype is made of its new fiber; the "weft" or threads running left and right in the twill, are Evrnu, while the "warp," or lengthwise threads, are virgin organic cotton. While the Evrnu fiber is strong enough to make a fully recycled fabric, Evrnu and a Levi's spokesperson explained that the blend helped meet the company's aesthetic requirements under time constraints.
"As we understand it, in the final creation of this prototype, there were some decisions made to meet the deadline of delivery of a physical garment and there was a choice to weave some virgin content into the warp yarn while using Evrnu as the primary weft yarn," the Levi’s spokesperson says.
All Images: courtesy Evrnu