By 2025, the world’s oldest jeans brand will make all of its products from 100 per cent sustainable cotton as part of an ambitious plan to “close the loop” on its supply chain.
Levi Strauss is dreaming big to close the loop on its manufacturing supply chain, and is looking to revolutionise the apparel sector with ideas that could shakeup the conventional notion of a fashion brand.
By 2025, the world’s oldest jeans brand plans to manufacture all of its products from sustainable cotton.
So in just eight years, the family-run US$4.5 billion firm will use lesscotton sourced from cotton fields to make its famous 501s, relying instead on old clothes from people’s closets.
There is just one minor obstacle, though. The technology to turn worn cotton into a quality material that looks like denim hasn’t been invented yet.
But Michael Kobori, the vice president of sustainability at Levi’s, is the optimistic sort. “Anything is possible,” he tells Eco-Business.
Currently, just a fraction of all the cotton Levi’s uses comes from recycled sources, withthe rest coming from virgin cotton. To raise the ratio of recycled material will depend on innovations in science.
Recycling cottoninvolves first chopping up the unwanted clothes. This degrades the quality of the material, so only a limited amount can be used again to make new garments.
A prototype was made from five discarded cotton t-shirts, and with 98 per cent less water than virgin cotton products.
Though some virgin cotton was used, Levi’s is claiming it is a breakthrough for a sector that, in the US alone, creates 13.1 million tonnes of textile waste a year, 11 million tonnes of which ends up in landfill.
Recycling old clothes may not be a perfect model for avoiding waste, but Levi’s nevertheless wants to get consumers into the habit.
Levis runs a programme in five major markets – Japan, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany – that gives customers a 15 per cent discount ona new Levi’s item if they donate any old clothes (they don’t have to be Levi’s) to be recycled.
The company is refining the initiative before rolling it out in other markets. “We’re trying to learn what works best for the consumer, and what our competitors are doing,” says Kobori.
Other apparel companies, such as H&M, the Swedishbrand that pioneered the throwaway clothing culture known as “fast fashion”, run similar recycling schemes.
“We want to encourage consumers to recycle, but we also want to bring in a programme that is unique and differentiates us,” Kobori notes, adding that Levi’s sustainability initiatives are “open source,” so others can copy them.
The ROI of Healthy Factory Workers
Though it is not something the company shouts about in its advertising campaigns, sustainability has long been a point of difference for the 163 year-old brand.
Levi’s was not only the first apparel company, but the first multinational to introduce a labour code of conduct in 1991, to ensure that the workplace standards and business practices of its suppliers lived up to its own.
“When we developed the programme 25 years ago, it was a breakthrough,” says Kobori. “Before then, companies didn’t really think about the sustainability of their supply chains. It was thought to be the government’s job. Now protecting people’s rights is the bare minimum that companies should be doing.”
The programme began in 2011 with a survey of factory workers in five key production bases, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt and Haiti, to find out how their lives could be improved beyond the basic protection of their rights.
So what do factory workers, most of whom are women who have moved from the countryside to the city to work, want? Access to healthcare and financial services, according to the survey. These services are delivered through Levi’s vendors, with the help of NGOs.
The scheme started out as a pilot with five vendors and is now being expanded to 25 suppliers in 11 countries. This will mean better healthcare and financial support for 100,000 workers behind 60 per cent of the company’s production volume.
“By 2020, 80 per cent of our volume will be made through Worker Wellbeing vendors, and 100 percent by 2025,” says Kobori.
Benefits for workers makes good business sense, but factories often need convincing that the upfront cost is worth it, Kobori says.
“The business case has to be there if we’re asking vendors across the industry to do this,” he explains.
“Skilled workers are an increasingly precious commodity. Workers will move factories depending on who gives the best benefits. So vendors are looking for programmes that will help them reduce turnover and increase productivity,” he says.
Levi’s has been working with Harvard University to evaluate the Worker Well-being programme. Early findings show that for every dollar a vendor invests, they get three dollars backs in reduced turnover and increased productivity.
Beyond the Supply Chain
The supply chain has been the focus of Levi’s sustainability efforts, and the company also aims to expand its Water<Less programme, so that 40 per cent of its products are made using less water by 2020.
Now, it plans to move sustainability beyond the supply chain. “Brand, retail, marketing and operations – all are looking at ways to introduce a more sustainable approach,” says Kobori.
Levi’s is also looking to find business opportunities in sustainability. The company is planning to roll out its Levi’s Tailor Shops concept, where customers can get their old clothing repaired, altered or customised, beyond the United States and Japan.
“It’s not just about making garments last longer, but about opening up a potential new revenue stream for us,” Kobori explains.
Showing the business case for sustainability is key for a company that hasn’t had an easy ride in recent years, as increased competition from rival apparel brands now making denim, and currency fluctuation issues have hurt the bottom line.
But the sustainability function has remained intact despite a business overhaul, and return to revenue growth, led by president and chief executive officerChip Bergh.
After five years of diligent work to turn around Levi’s economic issues, Levi’s finally saw an increase in revenue and profit. The company boasts three consecutive years of growth, many believe due to Bergh’s leadership.
“Our commitment to sustainability doesn’t change because the currency is fluctuating,” says Kobori, who adds that Levi’s sustainability budget has stayed “relatively constant” in recent years, and new initiatives continue to be added and existing programmes expanded.
Sustainability is key for a brand whose core target group and employee base are millennials – 50 per cent of Levi’s workforce belong to this young demographic, people who reached adulthood early this century. Millennials tends to care more about issues such as sustainably produced cotton, and less about Levi’s long heritage.
“For millennials, heritage may be less important, so brands need to stand for something,” says Kobori.
Sustainability is particularly important for Levi’s now, he says, given the change in government in the American brand’s home country and largest market, and also in key emerging markets such as China where millennials are increasingly discerning of how brands behave.
“Society is looking to the private sector to take the lead on the changes that people want to see in the world,” he says, pointing to an announcement from Bergh in support of the right of workers to migrate to the United States.
“He [Bergh] is not in favour of the travel ban that the [Trump] administration has issued, and employees responded with tremendous positivity to the stance he has taken. They’re looking for us to stand up for what’s right.”
“Sustainability is becoming more important for us,” adds Kobori. “Heritage is our bedrock, it’s who we are. But if we are able to articulate to the consumer that we also stand for the right causes and issues, we become much more contemporary and relevant.”
Lenzing achieved another milestone in its innovation heritage in the textile industry by developing a new fiber based on cotton scraps and wood. Refibra™ is the first cellulose fiber featuring recycled material on a commercial scale and was launched today at Premier Vision textile fair in Paris. The fiber is produced in the TENCEL® production process. TENCEL®, already a market success as an eco-friendly fiber, is now achieving another key milestone by creating from natural resources what is likely the most sustainable fiber. Refibra™ from cotton scraps and wood will further build Lenzing’s reputation as a leader in the field of environmental fiber technology and will push new solutions in the textile industry towards circular economy by recycling production waste.
“For Lenzing, developing circular business models in the fashion industry ensures the decoupling of business growth from pressure on ecological resource consumption. It reduces the need to extract additional virgin resources from nature, and reduces the net impact on ecological resources,” explain Stefan Doboczky, CEO of Lenzing Group, and Robert van de Kerkhof, CCO. Refibra™ – Reborn TENCEL® fiber
The new TENCEL® generation Refibra™ stands for “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle”. “The brand name Refibra™ and the claim ‘Reborn TENCEL® fiber’ illustrate immediately that this new kind of fiber is made of recycled materials promising reduced reliance on natural raw materials. Because Refibra™ is based on the TENCEL® fiber, which has been internationally recognized for its environmentally responsible closed loop production process, Refibra™offers a deep sustainability profile that clearly contributes to circular economy,” van de Kerkhof explains.
Refibra™ with fiber identification Transparency becomes more and more an issue in the textile industry to prove for example material origin. To assure customers that the fiber, made from recycled material, is really in the textiles, Lenzing has developed a new identification system. The system makes it possible to identify the Refibra™ fiber in the finished textile. This guarantees transparency in the overall processing chain.
The Refibra™ fiber itself is part of the global Lenzing Branding Service and the brand is licensed once the textile has undergone a certification process. International partnerships for circular economy “Close cooperation with leading companies who attach particular importance to sustainability is a pre- requisite for a successful market launch,” van de Kerkhof comments. “These pioneering companies offer the possibility of jointly developing concepts that contribute to a more sustainable fashion industry and promote the circular economy in this sector as well.”
For a better planet “TENCEL® itself is an environmentally responsible fiber of botanic origin. With Refibra™, we add to the future of manufacturing and start to reassess waste as resource. The target is to close the loop. We will not stop our innovation before we are there,” van de Kerkhof said. “Lenzing is working for a better planet.”
Retailers tackle the eco footprint of fashion, from the source of the fabric to the day you throw it away
At H&M’s flagship Canadian store in Toronto’s Eaton Centre, a rack of spiffy navy-blue jackets is rolled from the back room to the display floor.
“This one is made of wool with recycled fibres, and this one has recycled cotton,” H&M spokesperson Emily Scarlett says with a smile, showing off items from the chain’s eco-friendly line, dubbed the Conscious collection.
Scarlett points out proudly that H&M is also the world’s second-largest user of organic cotton.
The Swedish chain is eager to spruce up its environmental image. So is Zara, the massive fast fashion retailer from Spain, which just launched its first sustainable fashion line called Join Life, which uses organic and recycled materials.
Both retailers, which have dozens of locations in Canada, have come under attack in recent years — along with other fast fashion chains such as Forever 21, Joe Fresh and Topshop — for encouraging consumers to buy more clothing than ever, creating waste that eventually goes to landfill.
Fast fashion gets its name from its ability to take the latest style trends from the runway to the store floor in record time. But the industry can’t move fast enough when it comes to its impact on the environment.
Critics aren’t buying the stylish environmentalism.
Misinformation in the marketing
“I am very skeptical of both the Conscious Collection and the new initiative that Zara is launching,” said Nikolay Anguelov, author of The Dirty Side of the Garment Industry, a book about fast fashion’s negative impact on the environment.
“There’s misinformation in the marketing message. The eco label is not deserved. The eco is a minor improvement, but unfortunately, it’s communicated to the consumer as if it’s problem solved.”
A professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, Anguelov says his research shows that fabric accounts for only about 13 per cent of the cost of any piece of clothing, so a switch to natural textiles doesn’t make much of a difference. The fashion industry’s carbon footprint is huge, including energy used for transportation and toxic chemicals, such as bleach and dyes, used in manufacturing.
Then there’s the problem of massive waste. Anguelov says Millennials are consuming five times the number of apparel products as the generation before them and then discarding much of it.
That trend is driven by low prices, he says.
Mountains of textiles tossed in the trash
“We sometimes buy things we don’t need at places like Zara and H&M,” shopper Rafaella Silva admitted to CBC News, showing off the three sweaters she had just purchased at Zara for a total of $70.
“It’s mainly because of the price. If I had a choice to go somewhere that I could purchase something that would last longer and the price wasn’t that much, of course I would, for sure.”
Municipalities in Nova Scotia, Ontario and British Columbia are looking at ways to limit the amount of textiles being dumped in local landfills. A study done by the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART) showed that North Americans throw away almost 37 kilograms of textiles every year.
“You want a jacket, you want a sweater, you want a hoodie,” says Colin White, a student at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax who had just bought a winter coat at Zara. “It’s just cheaper here.”
The fashion industry has responded, forming its own group to address the waste problem. Based in San Francisco, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is a collaboration between two very odd bedfellows: super-retailer Walmart and Patagonia, the high-end maker of outdoor clothing that describes itself as an “activist company” when it comes to the environment.
It’s an industry-wide problem
Coalition CEO Jason Kibbey says the group’s 185 members include most fast fashion retailers, including H&M and Inditex, Zara’s parent company.
“This is not just a fast fashion problem,” he points out. “This is a problem across all segments. It’s a systemic challenge across all supply chains.”
Kibbey says a huge amount of industry investment is going into new, “closed loop” technology, where items of clothing can be broken down and recycled to make new items. It’s also known as a circular system, or a “cradle to cradle” approach.
“There’s a lot of investment and activity in that area right now,” he said. “It doesn’t mean there isn’t a long way to go. But given the amount of activity I see, this will be our future. It’s just a question of how long will it take us to get there.”
Trying to spur recycling innovation
H&M is in its second year of a “Global Change” innovation challenge in which five winners split a grant worth €1 million ($1.5 million Cdn). The award is meant to be a catalyst to accelerate the shift from “a linear to a circular fashion industry,” says the company. “The aim is to protect the planet and our living conditions.”
Even some anti-consumer advocates praise the chains that are taking action.
‘They are never going to advocate for the one solution that is going to have the biggest environmental impact, which is to simply reduce the amount we consume altogether.– Madeleine Somerville, author of All You Need Is Less
“I’m impressed,” said Madeleine Somerville, the Calgary-based author of All You Need Is Less, a book about how to adopt a more eco-friendly lifestyle.
“I think any time a retailer takes steps to develop manufacturing processes to actually address the waste and the pollution that comes from creating these clothes, that needs to be recognized and celebrated.”
But she notes that for all retailers, the overarching goal is to sell more clothing.
“They are never going to advocate for the one solution that is going to have the biggest environmental impact, which is to simply reduce the amount we consume altogether.”
Consumers are challenged to make a choice between the health of the planet and their desire to wear the very latest, most inexpensive, fashion trends.
A previous version of this story said fabric accounts for six per cent of the cost of a piece of clothing. In fact, it accounts for about 13 per cent.
Marks & Spencer is working its way up your closet. Hot on the heels of its first line of sustainable shoes, the British department store has launched a line of womenswear made with recycled cotton and recycled polyester fabrics. Inspired by streets of East London, the 16-piece “Limited London” collection combines punchy florals, statement denim, and urban-chic silhouettes to create high-impact pieces that “not only look great, but also have a conscience,” the retailer says. Prices are consumer-friendly, as well, ranging from £9.50 for a crop top to £69.50 for a sleeveless longline jacket.
The capsule arrives in stores just as Marks & Spencer announced additional commitments
to improve transparency in its clothing supply chain.
The retailer noted in its 2015 “Plan A” sustainability report that it will publish an annual list of its active clothing manufacturers by 2016.
“We’ve been working with our suppliers on many of these for some time, but this is the first time we’ve included them in our global sourcing principles,” it noted in the report. “Next year we will report on how we’re supporting our suppliers to meet these standards.”
Other ongoing initiatives include procuring 70 percent of its cotton from sustainable sources by 2020, improving its volume and value of textile recovery, and working to achieve its goal of zero discharge of hazardous chemicals from the manufacture of its textile and apparel products by 2020.