Levi’s introduced Tuesday its most sustainable jean—the product of more than five years of research in circular denim design and a partnership with Swedish recycling textile technology startup Re:newcell.
The jean is made with 60 percent organic cotton sourced from Turkey and Circulose, Re:newcell’s breakthrough material that includes 20 percent recycled denim and 20 percent sustainably sourced viscose. The jean is part of Levi’s Wellthread line, which brings to market sustainable new fiber and fabric strategies, including cottonized hemp denim and Water<Less.
Innovations like this, Levi’s stated, are what will allow the denim giant to reduce its dependence on virgin materials and reduce water and energy consumption.
Re:newcell launched Circulose in 2019 as an alternative to mechanical recycling, which weakens natural fibers and requires synthetic fibers blends to make them stronger, deeming them non-recyclable. The firm’s polymer recycling process, which is powered by renewable energy and requires no water, makes it possible to sustainably manufacture fabric that competes with non-recycled materials in the market.
To make Circulose, Re:newcell repurposes discarded cotton textiles like worn-out denim through a process similar to recycling paper. The waste fabrics are broken down using water. The color is then stripped from these materials using an environmentally friendly bleach. After any synthetic fibers are removed from the slurry mix, the mixture is dried and the excess water is extracted, leaving behind a sheet of Circulose. This sheet is then made into viscose fiber, which is combined with cotton and woven into a new fabric.
“To make fashion sustainable, it’s important to show people that a material like Circulose is a real alternative to virgin cotton both in performance and style,” said Re:newcell CEO Patrik Lundström. “I can’t think of a better proof than putting truly circular Levi’s 502’s into stores worldwide.”
The collaboration with Re:newcell is an important step in Levi’s garment-to-garment recycling. Though durability and circularity are akin to the holy grail of sustainable denim, technology has put the two qualities at odds. The partnership, however, is an example of how to recycle jeans in a way that doesn’t diminish quality or hinder its recyclability in the future.
“We’re transforming old jeans into high-quality materials, moving us beyond traditional cotton recycling, which shortens and breaks fibers,” said Una Murphy, Levi’s senior designer for innovation. “By using high-quality fiber, Levi’s jeans last longer, and designing for circularity allows our old jeans to become new jeans again and again.”
The jeans are designed in a way that maximizes recyclability so it can be regenerated into a new jean again. Each component of the jean—from trims to thread—has been carefully calibrated to ensure it meets recycling specifications, allowing the garment to have a second life when it is no longer wearable.
“This is a sustainability challenge that we’ve been wrestling with for years, so it’s really exciting to see an aspirational concept become a familiar pair of Levi’s jeans—now on sale around the world,” said Paul Dillinger, Levi’s vice president of global product innovation.
Levi’s recycled denim collection is available on the Levi’s app and on Levi.com. The collection includes a men’s 502 and a women’s high loose. Jeans retail for $148.