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The Race to Create Zero-Waste Jeans

Denim is among the most popular materials in fashion, but it’s wasteful to manufacture and difficult to recycle. Brands ranging from global giant Levi’s to tiny MUD say they are closer than ever to solving this problem.
Levis circular denim collection. Courtesy.
Levis circular denim collection. Courtesy.
  • Danielle James

Levi’s is on a mission to shake sustainable denim’s wrinkly reputation.

Early next year, the company will launch a version of its popular 501 jeans made from a mix of organic cotton and a material that blends old denim, industrial waste and wood pulp.

The jeans will mark the third style where Levi’s has swapped out non-recyclable materials like polyester and elastane for sustainable alternatives, following the release of modified 502s and High Loose jeans. Each was created in partnership with Renewcell, a Swedish start-up that turns textile waste into a material, Circulose, which can be used to make new clothing.

Renewcell says Circulose is fully “circular,” in that it does not incorporate any new material, such as cotton, oil or wood, and is produced entirely with renewable energy. In theory, garments made from materials like Circulose can be recycled into new clothes, helping create a fashion supply chain free of waste.

Crucially for Levi’s, jeans made from Circulose have the look and feel of a traditional pair of denim, said Paul Dillinger, the brand’s vice president of design innovation.

“There’s this aesthetic that you associate with sustainability — that it’s a little less comfortable, a little organic, a little wrinkled, a little rumpled, a little ‘less than’ what you’re used to,” he said. “We really wanted to avoid doing that.”

Levi’s isn’t the only brand looking to bring circular fashion into the mainstream. In 2020, Monki, an H&M-owned brand, released sweats made using new technology that transforms old clothes into materials that can be re-spun into new ones. Lee Jeans introduced fully recyclable jeans in August. MUD, a 10-year-old Dutch denim brand sells jeans made from 40 percent recycled denim which it “leases” to customers to encourage recycling.

Still, circular denim remains an elusive goal. Levi’s modified 501s and 502s represent a fraction of the company’s roughly $4.5 billion in annual sales. MUD only sells denim it says is fully recyclable, but while growing fast, it expects to sell only 150,000 pairs this year. Earlier this year, a report by Fashion for Good and Boston Consulting Group estimated fashion brands needed to spend $20 billion to $30 billion to scale recycling technology and other solutions meant to mitigate the industry’s environmental impact.

Below, read how Levi’s and MUD are tackling three of the biggest hurdles to creating truly circular denim.

Technology. Polyester and other oil-derived fabrics are popular for a reason: they offer a mix of strength and stretch and are cheap to produce. But even a small amount of synthetics can render a garment unrecyclable.

Developing alternatives can be a slow and expensive process.

“We’ve been designing for recyclability for six years and this was the first time that it intersected with products that we felt really represented the quality we wanted to move forward with,” said Una Murphy, design director on Levi’s Innovation Team.

Even MUD’s jeans contain up to two percent elastane, an oil-derived material that provides stretch. That amount doesn’t prevent the brand from recycling its denim, said founder and CEO Bert van Son.

He said MUD plans to introduce a denim sample fully made from post-consumer waste jeans later this year. By 2022, the company pledges to make 5 percent of its collection entirely from recycled cotton.

Price. Recyclable denim isn’t cheap. Levi’s Wellthread 502s were originally priced at $148, but are currently marked down to $69.98 on the brand’s website, close to the $69.50 Levi’s charges for a full-price pair of 502s made from a nonrecyclable blend of cotton, polyester and elastane.

MUD’s jeans cost about €120 ($139). Despite the premium price, van Son said margins can be thinner than competitors that aren’t focused on using sustainable materials and processes. The brand has logged annual losses for much of the last decade, but expects to see a small profit this year, and for sales to double. Collaborations with larger brands have helped; this year, MUD designed a denim cover for Ikea’s Klippan sofa.

“All the techniques are there. If you want you can buy biodegradable indigo, if you want you can increase the levels of post-consumer waste recyclables, if you want you can pay someone in Indonesia a proper salary … everything is possible,” von Son said. “The only thing is if you want to pay for it.”

Completing the circle. Even if jeans are recyclable, there’s no guarantee they won’t end up in a landfill anyway. According to a 2015 study conducted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an organisation committed to creating a circular economy, only one percent of clothing is fully recycled into new clothing.

MUD offers an option to rent its jeans for €9.95 a month. When a pair is sent back, it’s upcycled by being repaired and sold as vintage or recycled into new jeans.

Other brands have turned to the resale market to boost their circular bona fides. Levi’s introduced an online resale site last year selling secondhand denim ranging from $30 501 jeans to a $240 denim jacket featuring jacquard fabric from Malhia Kent.

Madewell partnered with thredUP for an online denim resale program, Madewell Forever, featuring jeans priced under $50. In September, the two companies opened a secondhand pop-up in Brooklyn, called A Circular Store.

Ultimately, denim brands need to convince consumers that the pursuit of circular fashion is worth their money.

“The cause of sustainability loses the second we put something out in the market where the consumer puts it on and says, ‘I gave something up in order to be a more sustainable consumer,’” Levi’s Dillinger said. “They have to put the clothes on and say, ‘Oh, I really won here.’”

Related Articles:

Why Gucci and Levi’s Are Getting Into Resale

Chasing the Holy Grail of Circular Fashion

How Sustainability Is Changing Fashion PR

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