Hemp has always looked better on paper than it does in practice. The crop is a prodigious grower, sips rather than slurps water and requires little to no pesticides or herbicides to flourish. As a clothing fiber, however, it can be finicky to work with, not to mention stiff and scratchy to wear.
So in 2019, Levi Strauss gave hemp a makeover. Last March, the denim giant’s Wellthread program teamed up with Outerknown, the lifestyle label founded by champion surfer Kelly Slater, to unveil a new breed of “cottonized” hemp that looks and feels just like the fluffy stuff.
Cotton makes up more than 90 percent of Levi’s product portfolio, said Una Murphy, the brand’s senior innovation designer.
“It’s incumbent on us to both try to encourage more sustainable methods of cotton cultivation, which we are doing, while also looking at alternatives, like hemp, as part of a portfolio approach that can significantly reduce the natural resources used in our products,” Murphy said.
Levi’s uses European rainfed hemp, which it runs through its patented fiber technology to imbue its hemp jeans with the softer handfeel that consumers have come to expect. The 501 maker is currently working on scaling up use of the fiber “significantly” across its product lines, and it expects to deploy cottonized hemp in greater quantities with each subsequent season.
“Blended correctly, cotton and hemp offer a consistent customer-wearing experience,” Murphy said. “Our research in this area is ongoing and we continue to iterate and improve the processing method.”
Cottonized hemp is just one facet of Levi’s multi-pronged sustainability push, which includes its agua-saving Water<Less finishing techniques, its stewardship of water-stressed production areas, its Worker Well-being programs and its commitment toward driving greater product circularity.
Although current challenges facing the apparel industry are “deprioritizing” sustainability, Levi’s remains “steadfast in our commitment,” Murphy said.
“To us, this is precisely the time to double down on sustainability, to reinforce and communicate about our progress and ambitions,” she said. “We think that the ongoing exploration of breakthroughs like cottonized hemp will not only make our products more sustainable, but will enable our business to be more environmentally and economically resilient by reducing the quantities of natural resources required to make them.”
What’s the most important issue the fashion industry has yet to address?
“Overproduction and its handmaiden, overconsumption.”
Sourcing Journal’s Sustaining Voices celebrates the efforts the apparel industry is making toward securing a more environmentally responsible future through creative innovations, scalable solutions and forward-thinking initiatives that are spinning intent into action.
See more of our Sustaining Voices honorees and their stories, here.