The 501 Original jean is a staple for the Levi’s brand and greater pop culture. What started as durable work pants for California miners in 1873 has grown to become a symbol of everyday style adopted by many for every decade since. But ever since the birth of the blue jean, that adoption has slowly turned into overconsumption and contributed to the overall waste problem the apparel industry currently faces.
Just as Levi’s has led jeans into our casual wardrobes, the brand has made a concerted effort to address denim’s part in the climate crisis and to lead new solutions such as developing garments with less water, recycled plastic, and Earth-friendlier alternative materials like WellThread’s Cottonized Hemp. It’s latest sustainable innovation will take a new spin on the iconic 501 by creating new jeans from old jeans with the potential to keep the cycle going for future pairs. This circular practice is done in collaboration with Renewcell, a Swedish startup founded in 2012 focused on innovating fabric recycling.
The partnership between Levi’s and Renewcell allows the American heritage brand to utilize the startup’s organic cotton and post-consumer recycled denim material blend called Circulose. The brand says it saves on the water, chemical, and CO2 footprint of its jeans by using high quality recycled denim. This sustainability sourced viscose was first used by Levi’s for a 2020 Wellthread release of the 502 for men and High Loose for women, which became the winner of the consumer products category in Fast Company‘s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards. However, the 2020 drop and that capsules that followed was only the beginning and an opportunity for Levi’s and Renewcell to explore what truly is possible with denim. The next step is Levi’s utilizing Circulose at scale across its most popular cut. There is a high chance the next jeans you purchase will be one made from an old recycled pair.
“We’re taking the innovation from last year’s Wellthread collaboration with Renewcell and applying it to what could rightly be called the most iconic garment in all of apparel, the 501,” said Levi’s vice president of Design Innovation Paul Dillinger in a press release. “It shows how serious we are about moving in the direction of circularity. Not only will our circular 501 jeans be designed to stand the test of time, just as they always have been, but they’ll also be able to find a second, third or fourth life as new garments.”
Renewcell’s innovative Circulose fiber is made by breaking garments and textile waste materials down to its chemical level as cellulose to then create fibers that can be woven crafted into a new, soft and durable material. “One of Sweden’s biggest industries is forestry, so we have expertise in understanding wood,” Renewcell Chief Growth Officer Harald Cavalli-Björkman told FastCompany. “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.”
Growing the use of Circulose into the 501 Original line is an investment that shows Levi’s commitment to and potential for viable alternative materials. It’s also another marker for the need for wider collaboration in the materials science space. “We’ve been working with Levi’s for several years now to push the frontier of what’s possible for textile-to-textile recycling at scale. Incorporating Circulose in the 501 Original and launching it in retail showcases Levi’s innovative capacity and the promise that Circulose carries to substitute significant shares of virgin cotton with recycled textiles in products widely known for their superior quality,” said Renewcell CEO Patrik Lundström in a press release.
This is only the beginning as the apparel industry is only in the early stages of moving towards true circularity. “By producing our signature jean, the 501, with recycled content and in a way that makes them recyclable, we’re hoping to show ourselves and the industry that it really can be done and that we can deliver more sustainable product that saves resources, still looks great, and meets the highest quality standards,” said Dillinger.
In other news, biotech startup MycoWorks raised $125 million to fund mass production of mycelium-based materials.