For Paul Dillinger, vice president of global product innovation at Levi Strauss & Co., design and science are connected.
Working for the largest jeans company in the world, Paul Dillinger, vice president of global product innovation at Levi Strauss & Co., understands the mounting pressure for the denim sector to become more sustainable.
In his role at Levi’s, he has the unique opportunity to help drive this change through a combination of science and design, having worked on several groundbreaking product and design initiatives. Dillinger led the team that developed the company’s Wellthread Collection in 2015, which focuses on implementing new supply chain processes that use less water, empower workers and promote circularity in product design.
And in 2019, he was instrumental in Levi’s adoption of cottonized hemp—a breakthrough that serves as a sustainable alternative to cotton.
Why are you drawn to denim?
More than any other fashion typology, designing with denim feels natural and authentic for me. Jeans are an expression of democratic design, using craft traditions and garment forms that are accessible, honest and hard-working. Jeans transcend barriers of age, gender and class.
In the same way that jazz music is a uniquely American idiom; the way that Abstract Expressionists asserted an independent identity for American fine arts in the 20th century, jeans are a quintessential expression of the American spirit in an apparel context. A great pair of jeans belongs in every wardrobe. And from my perspective as a designer, denim just feels like home.
Working at Levi’s gives me access to our 166-year history of optimism, innovation and the progressive values that built this iconic global brand. Our jeans were the uniform of the prospectors, pioneers and farmers who built the west, and later the teenagers, rebels and rockers who have defined American youth culture in the post-war era. It’s heaven for a denim head like me.
How can the supply chain improve the way it communicates sustainable technology to brands?
A lot of brands are scrambling to understand their own impact and figure out what it means to design and produce product more responsibly. Suppliers recognize this and have been developing products and services that lend themselves to the kinds of sustainability narratives that brands want to highlight.
But to make real progress toward a more sustainable future, our industry can’t just recalibrate isolated components or processes. We need to overhaul the whole system. This requires visibility and influence across broadly decentralized supply chains and a commitment to disciplined change management at every step—from raw material creation to product end-of-life.
Mills, spinners, factories and textile chemists should continue the good work that some have begun to conserve natural resources and reduce their environmental impact. But brands are better positioned to create the holistic change our industry needs. To do so, they need to invest in credible strategies that can be substantiated by data and verified by third parties, and that go beyond hang tags and marketing claims to deliver real and measurable systems-level change.
How do you predict the denim supply chain will change in the next 10 years?
We’ve known about the connection between fossil fuels and climate change for decades but have continued to engineer more and more synthetic content into our denim product. As we better understand polyester’s role in the ocean microplastic pollution, I’m hopeful that regulatory pressure and industry conscience will accelerate the R&D to deliver safe bio-based, biodegradable and recoverable polyester and elastane fiber alternatives. And that in 10 years, we will no longer use fossil fuel to make clothes.
With the limited and diminishing access to drinkable water in many regions where we source cotton, we have to find water-saving alternatives to conventionally cultivated cotton. I’m hoping the ongoing development and adoption of restorative and rain-fed agriculture practices, alternative fibers—like Levi’s cottonized hemp innovation—and post-consumer regenerative cotton technologies can get us to a point where we no longer use fresh water to make clothes.
And taking that a step further, I’d like to see the industry as a whole eliminate environmental pollution in the next decade. I think it can—it has to. Media attention and environmental advocacy are shining a light on polluting practices. There is growing pressure from consumers and NGOs for full transparency and traceability that we all need to respond to.
What makes the denim supply chain unique from other apparel sectors?
Working within the denim sector involves particular set of constraints, as well as some unique opportunities. In making a pair of jeans, we’re working within a fairly narrow formal vocabulary that requires specific machinery and sewing capabilities. All the fundamental elements of a pair of jeans— quality denim, heavier threads, felled seams, chain-stitch hems, etc.—require specially tooled machinery and experienced sewing hands. This leaves us with a narrower and highly competitive source base and fewer options for design modifications.
That said, the dynamic nature of denim—the way that indigo rope-dye yarns can be manipulated through garment washing, for example—creates infinite opportunity for creative finish design and extraordinary complexity in production of industrially finished garments. For these reasons, I think denim design is the most challenging, exciting and rewarding disciplinary focus in the apparel industry.
What’s exciting you about denim in 2019?
I’m most excited about new post-consumer fiber recovery technologies and progress in cotton alternatives. There are fiber-tech start-ups, like Evrnu, that are unlocking the potential for old garments to become new high-quality cellulosic fibers using green chemistry innovation. We’ve also made great strides with key fiber processing specialists to bring a cottonized hemp to market that looks, performs and feels just like cotton.
I’m also excited for the continued evolution of IoT technology and connected garments. Our Commuter Trucker with Jacquard technology by Google continues to improve. We keep adding new digital capabilities to the Jacquard system that’s already out in the market, so consumers can update their garment via bluetooth from the Jacquard app. That means the jacket evolves and improves as it ages, deepening the relationship between garment and individual, obviating the need to buy anything new and lengthening the garment’s life span.