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Levi’s Paul Dillinger Explains How Big Denim Can Be Sustainable

Since fashion began making the move to sustainability, the future of larger denim brands was unclear. Brands with multiple factories, complicated supply chains and supersized orders can be less flexible and slower to adopt innovative processes. It’s why some claimed sustainability could mean the end of the billion-dollar denim brand.

In a talk with WeDesign CEO Simon Collins, Paul Dillinger, vice president, global product innovation at Levi’s, explains why that’s not true for the heritage denim brand. Through creative design processes and collaboration throughout the industry, companies of all sizes can be more responsible—starting with the use of eco-friendly cotton alternatives.

For Levi’s, hemp and Tencel are just some of the responsible fibers that require less water than cotton and create a product that can be recycled at the end of its lifetime.“[With hemp,] we’re able to deliver a product that’s indistinguishable from a conventional Levi’s product you would expect,” he said.

He added that the company is working to include even more hemp over time, and expects to have products with 55 percent hemp available within the next two seasons.

Levi’s began using hemp in March 2019 when Levi’s Wellthread program collaborated with eco-friendly lifestyle brand Outerknown on “cottonized” hemp. While the fiber has a reputation for being stiff and uncomfortable, this form of hemp was crafted with softness and comfort in mind.

Innovations like these create a ripple effect throughout the industry, inspiring other brands to follow suit.

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“We came to market with hemp in very small quantities that generated so much buzz,” he said. “Now all these other people are getting on the bandwagon. This is how it changes.”

While larger brands can be less nimble than their smaller counterparts, they have the potential changemakers. Dillinger noted that it’s actually some of the larger brands—and ones that have experienced severe scrutiny—that are making some of the most positive changes throughout the industry.

“H&M gets pounded all the time as the worst actor in the fast-fashion space,” he said. “H&M pours money into intensive external research and development and they fund amazing projects. And they don’t just keep that development for themselves.”

Like H&M, Levi’s has made its innovations open source, allowing others to adopt the same water-saving and eco-friendly processes it uses in its own facilities. After honing its waterless technology for five years, Levi’s held a water symposium and invited everyone to join and learn about its proprietary formulation.

“If you figure out how to save water, and you keep that as a competitive advantage, you’re just a jerk,” said Dillinger.