Jeans often come with a high environmental cost. These require a huge amount of energy and water to produce, also the intensive treatment and dyeing processes. Levi’s has therefore been working to make its offering more sustainable, with its iconic 501s the latest design to receive an eco-friendly overhaul. Paul Dillinger, vice president of global product innovation at the brand, tells Vogue “It’s a really exciting moment for us. “We’ve been working towards this goal of bringing true circularity to the mainline for a long time. The idea that we could bring it to the 501, the marquee product of the brand, this 149-year-old design is a big deal because you don’t get to mess around with the 501 very often.”
Circularity refers to a system where products can be reused, recycled, or returned to the earth. Designed with this in mind, the new 501s are made from a blend of certified organic cotton, sustainably-sourced wood pulp, and Circulose – a textile made by Swedish company Renewcell by chemically recycling cotton textile waste. The threads, pockets, labels, and patches are all made from 100% cotton to allow for the jeans to be recycled once they’re finished.
“True circularity means you have to make sure that you’ve designed a product in a way that means it can go back into its own system,” Dillinger said. Still, there is plenty of room for improvement, he admits. The new 501s currently contain only around 16% recycled cotton, a figure that Levi’s is hoping to improve on. “The quantity of cotton that we’ve integrated into this form doesn’t shed; it doesn’t weaken,” he explains of the need to balance product longevity with the use of recycled material. He further adds that in the future, the company can increase that recycled cotton content, and eventually it will become probably 40% or 50% recycled. Another thing the company is working on is the dyeing process with chemical usage being a key issue when it comes to the recycling of garments. Currently, the jeans don’t use any chemicals on the manufacturing restricted substance list, but Levi’s is now exploring natural alternatives.
Creating an eco-friendlier and more circular product is only part of the company’s story. “We’re going to ask customers to buy better, to wear longer, and then to care for things in a nicer way – to wash things on cold, to hang them to dry, to wash infrequently,” Dillinger added. “Then we’re going to ask them if you’re not interested in the clothes, can you exchange them with a friend? Can you resell them? Can you do anything but throw them away?”
Overhauling its iconic 501s will undoubtedly bring the importance of sustainability to a wider audience, Levi’s believes. Ultimately, though, it’s still about maintaining that longevity that the 501 has always had. “I hope it gets people to notice that there’s an important change happening in the industry,” Dillinger concludes. “But if they don’t notice, I don’t really mind. Because they’re just going to get a great high quality 501 that’s going to last forever.”