Levi Strauss & Co. has been innovating since its birth in 1873. Back then, Mr. Strauss saw a business opportunity open up when miners out in the western states in the U.S. needed sturdy pants that would hold up under rigorous and demanding conditions. Together with a tailor called Jacob Davis, he patented and started manufacturing the riveted work clothing made of blue denim ("For Men Who Toil") that today has evolved into the globally ubiquitous wardrobe item we know as blue jeans.
Along the way, the jeans company became the world's largest manufacturer of brand-name apparel, with an extensive web of international suppliers and hundreds of manufacturing contractors, of whom a considerable proportion are in Asia.
So when Levi Strauss decided to examine the environmental impact of its operations, as one of the first in the garment industry, it did not pass unnoticed. The effects could be felt around the world. By 2006, the company had several programs in place to address environmental impacts associated with the production of its products and operation of its facilities. It then conducted a life-cycle assessment of two of its core products.
| From the top, recycled polyester used in jeans from Levi Strauss, I Am Not A Virgin, and Nike.
"By taking a product-lifecycle approach to our work, we were able to develop a set of strategies to address the greatest impacts of our business on the environment," wrote the company in its report A Product Lifecycle Approach to Sustainability, published in 2009.
However, as Levi Strauss also realized: "The greatest opportunity to reduce the environmental impact of a new or existing product occurs during the design phase of its life cycle. Therefore, the primary objective of our life cycle evaluation approach is to provide our designers and developers the information they need to help them make more sustainable products" (Levi Strauss 2010 Product Assessment Study).
Denim not made from cotton?
Apparently this can even mean rethinking the notion that denim has to be made of cotton. While earlier eco-jeans were made using post-consumer cotton fiber, the company has now announced that it would be introducing a denim collection made from recycled bottles and food trays as the next chapter in its sustainable design initiative. Although not the first to use recycled PET - Patagonia takes the credit for that - and not the only one to be doing it now - earlier this year the "I Am Not A Virgin" clothing line was launched by Peter Heron made from 75% cotton and 25% recycled synthetic material and Nike has been dressing various national soccer teams in shorts made of recycled PET since 2010, to name but two others - it is loud affirmation from a leading company that it is putting its money on 'green'; that it is listening closely to what the public wants and betting that people will really want to buy 'green' Levi's blue jeans. And that sustainable choices are no longer niche or nerdy, but rapidly becoming the new normal.
Each Levi's Waste<Less product will include a minimum of 20% post-consumer recycled content, or, on average, eight 12 to 20-ounce bottles per jean. The Levi's Waste<Less products, which will be available for both men and women as part of the Levi's Spring 2013 collection, will utilize over 3.5 million recycled bottles.
Through the company's partners, PET plastic, or polyethylene terephthalate materials - including brown beer bottles, green soda bottles, clear water bottles and black food trays - are collected through municipal recycling programs across the United States. The bottles and food trays are sorted by color, crushed into flakes, and made into a polyester fiber. Next, the polyester fiber is blended with cotton fiber, which is finally woven with traditional cotton yarn to create the denim used in the new collection of jeans and trucker jackets. According to Levi Strauss, "the color of the bottles used adds a beautiful undertone to the denim fabric creating a unique finish in the final product."
Now that puts a whole new perspective on wearing garbage, doesn't it?
The jeans will be available at Levi stores around the world and on line in January 2013.