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Levi’s Targets More Hemp, Sustainable Cotton in Jeans

Levis Strauss & Co. (LS&Co.) is making strides in its use of sustainable fiber.

Last year, it introduced jeans made with textile technology startup Re:newcell’s breakthrough recycled Circulose fiber, increased cottonized hemp use throughout its product assortment and continued to work towards developing water-saving, regenerative and pesticide-free cultivation methods. By the end of 2020, 83 percent of its cotton came from more sustainable sources, including organic and recycled cotton and the Better Cotton Initiative, and the company plans to reach 100 percent more sustainable cotton by the end of 2025.

A new sustainability report outlines this progress and identifies how LS&Co. will continue to improve its methods to source fibers. “Nearly 90 percent of LS&Co. products are cotton-based, which makes it critically important that we find more sustainable and resilient sources for that cotton, while continuing to investigate alternative fibers,” the report stated.

While LS&Co. defines sustainable materials as those that fall under the Textile Exchange Certified Fibers list and Preferred Fibers and Materials list, it notes that hemp is still considered an “innovative fiber” and is therefore not yet certified. The company, however, is dedicated to increasing its use of hemp. In 2019 and 2020, LS&Co. worked with third parties to identify the water- and chemical-saving benefits of using hemp in apparel, and is currently working with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to recognize hemp as a more sustainable material.

Levi’s was one of the first to incorporate the fiber in its denim production at scale, debuting a collection in 2019 with denim featuring 30 percent hemp. In March of this year, it doubled down on its offering with a Wellthread collection featuring a 55 percent hemp jean.

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Though too-high cottonized hemp formulations have traditionally sacrificed comfort and hand feel, Levi’s Wellthread team was able to achieve an end product that is both soft and lightweight.

In addition to hemp, organic cotton is a key area of focus for the company, as it is known to be a more sustainable choice compared to conventional cotton in terms of water usage and environmental and social health.

However, as many throughout the apparel industry have experienced, the current global supply is far from reaching the demand. Though the Textile Exchange’s 2021 Organic Cotton Market Report stated that the 2019-20 crop year had the largest volume of organic cotton fiber harvested globally, the fiber still only accounts for less than 1 percent of the global cotton harvest in the season. Environmental and verification issues have created challenges.

As a result, LS&Co. is following a plan to incrementally increase its use of organic cotton to manage these challenges, increase the traceability of its cotton supply and reflect its continued commitment to sustainable agriculture.

As a founding member of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI)—it joined in 2010—LS&Co. has worked with the program for more than a decade implementing more sustainable agricultural practices at scale. In 2021, LS&Co. also joined the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, a farm-level, science-based program setting a new standard for more sustainably grown cotton. The Trust Protocol will assist Levi Strauss & Co.’s efforts by providing verified data on sustainability practices from U.S. cotton growers and access to aggregate year-over-year data on critical metrics, including water use, greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, soil carbon, soil loss and land use efficiency.

The company is also looking to outside innovations to further improve the footprint of its jeans.

In 2020, Levi’s introduced what it calls its “most sustainable jean” in partnership with Swedish recycling textile technology startup Re:newcell. The jeans are made with 60 percent organic cotton sourced from Turkey and Circulose, Re:newcell’s material that includes 20 percent recycled denim and 20 percent sustainably sourced viscose.

The brand is also committed to using responsible manmade cellulosics, including viscose (rayon), modal, and lyocell, and ensures that all of its relevant suppliers have eliminated sourcing from ancient and endangered forests.

Additionally, the report touched on animal welfare, and stated that Levi’s prohibits the use of animal-derived products and materials from endangered species—a concept recently challenged by animal welfare organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which publicly scrutinized the company’s use of leather patches during a LS&Co. virtual meeting. Levi’s stated that leather comprises “a small fraction” of raw materials it uses, and ensures the “health and welfare” of the animals in question are protected, “in line with international animal welfare standards.”

The company states in the report it still has ways to go in the cultivation of responsible fibers and is dedicated to continuously innovating.

“We will keep driving on each of these focus areas—sourcing fibers responsibly, engaging suppliers to address manufacturing impacts, and using next-generation fibers that are less resource-intensive—as we continue our work to deliver more sustainable products at scale,” the report stated.