Your next pair of Levi’s 501 jeans could come from a liquefied pair of old Levi’s as the company aims to bring more circularity to its supply chain.
A chemical process dissolves Levi’s denim and turns that into a new fabric that’s used to create new jeans, according to the iconic jeans brand. It’s now working with the Swedish company Renewcell, which turns the old jeans into new material.
The announcement comes after years of recycling efforts by Levi’s, but this effort, the brand says, has the greatest potential to scale.
Renewcell is the brainchild of scientists from Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology, They were looking at ways to break down cellulose fibers found in cotton, wood, and viscose.
“One of Sweden’s biggest industries is forestry, so we have expertise in understanding wood,” Harald Cavalli-Björkman, Renewcell’s chief growth officer, told Fast Company. “There are established methods for chemically breaking down wood into cellulose to recycle it. With Renewcell, we’re tweaking the formula to make it work for cotton and viscose.”
That morphed into the technology it’s now using to make old clothes new again. According to Renewcell, old jeans are excellent candidates because traditional denim is mostly cotton without other materials such as nylon. It calls the new material made from the discarded jeans Circulose—a nod to the circularity keeping the old materials in the supply chain for as long as possible.
Although chemicals are involved, the process meets Levi’s safety standards.
“When you’re considering chemical recycling, you want to make sure that there aren’t any toxic chemicals that make their way into the fabrics,” Paul Dillinger, head of global product innovation at Levi Strauss & Co., told Fast Company. “But Renewcell’s factory must operate within Sweden’s very stringent environmental protection regulations. It was ultimately a very clean process, with no effluents coming out of the plant.”
Circulose capsule collections launched during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 in a move Dillinger said proved the material was strong enough to meet its quality standards. Now, its latest launch of the 501s includes tens of thousands of units. The move comes as Renewcell’s new commercial-scale plant in Sweden goes online, it says it can produce 60,000 tons of the recycled denim annually.
Levi’s says it also adjusted the design of the 501s to make future recycling even easier. Everything, down to the labels and pockets, are made from cotton or viscose. “The benefit of Renewcell’s chemical recycling process is that fabrics can be recycled infinitely without degrading the fibers.” Dillinger says these are the most sustainable jeans Levi’s has ever made and big step toward its circularity goals.
“There are lots of companies out there working on very exciting solutions,” he says. “We’re betting on many of them. As an industry, we’re not going to make strides unless everybody is innovating.”
Earlier this week, outdoor giant Timberland announced its new Timberloop recycling program positioned toward increased circularity. It’s encouraging consumers to return their old Timberland items–in any condition–for a discount toward future purchases, which, like Levi’s may contain material from their old garments. It’s also launching a new boot that’s made to be more easily recyclable.
Lead image courtesy Levi’s