For years the fashion industry has tried to recycle fabrics the same way we recycle aluminum cans or paper now. Levi’s solved a small part of this puzzle.
When you buy a pair of iconic Levi’s 501 jeans from this year on, chances are they are made from discarded jeans that have been dissolved with chemicals and then made into a new fabric by a Swedish company called Renewcell. The American heritage brand has been experimenting with recycled materials for several years by creating small capsule collections. But Levi’s believes Renewcell’s advanced fabric is now ready to evolve.
Each year, the $ 1.3 trillion global fashion industry produces more than 100 billion pieces of clothing, the vast majority of which are made by extracting new raw materials like cotton and petroleum (which are used to create synthetic materials like nylon and polyester). There is currently no reliable way to recycle fabrics on a large scale, which is why organizations around the world are trying to find solutions. In Hong Kong, for example, the government developed the Green Machine, which shreds clothes into tiny fibers, separates the different materials, and then spins them back into yarn. Other companies, like Evrnu, Circ, and Sulzer, use chemicals to dissolve fabrics into polymers and then turn them back into fibers.
Renewcell, founded in Sweden in 2012, also uses chemicals to recycle fabrics. It was started by a team of scientists from the Royal Stockholm Institute of Technology who sought to break down cellulose, the building block of organic fibers like wood, cotton, and viscose, a fabric made from wood pulp . “One of Sweden’s biggest industries is forestry, so we have expertise in understanding wood,” says Harald Cavalli-Björkman, Director of Growth at Renewcell. “There are established methods for chemically breaking down wood into cellulose for recycling. With Renewcell, we’re fine-tuning the formula to work for both cotton and viscose.
Over the past decade, Renewcell has been working on a process to turn old clothes into new clothes. She buys used clothing and textile production waste which contains a high proportion of cotton and viscose; jeans are a good candidate, as many are made largely from cotton with a small amount of stretch fibers like nylon. A machine removes the buttons and zippers, then the remaining textiles are shredded and chemically dissolved. All contaminants and non-cellulosic content (such as nylon) are separated. What remains is pure cellulose. This new material, which Renewcell calls Circulose, is packaged in bales and can then pass through the clothing manufacturing supply chain as a replacement for cotton, viscose or man-made fibers.
Paul Dillinger, Global Product Innovation Manager at Levi Strauss & Co., is responsible for exploring the latest sustainable solutions in the fashion industry. In 2018, he visited Renewcell’s new factory in Kristinehamn, Sweden, where 20 full-time employees worked on this fabric-to-fabric recycling process. Two things marked him: First, Circulose appeared to be identical to virgin viscose, so it could be easily traded in Levi’s denim supply chain. Second, the chemical recycling process seemed clean. “When you plan to recycle chemicals, you want to make sure that no toxic chemicals get into the fabrics,” says Dillinger. “But the Renewcell plant has to operate under very strict Swedish environmental protection regulations. It was ultimately a very clean process, with no effluents leaving the plant.
In 2020 and 2021, the Dillinger team launched small capsule collections of Circulose jeans, including the 502 for men and High Loose for women. “We were able to prove that Circulose was strong and durable enough to meet our denim standards,” says Dillinger. “But the big question was whether we could start using this material on a large scale. “
It was a big question: Levi Strauss & Co., Levi’s parent company, generates $ 4.5 billion in annual sales and sells millions of jeans around the world. Fortunately, Renewcell was building a commercial-scale chemicals recycling plant in Sundsvall, Sweden, which would employ 100 people and could generate up to 60,000 tonnes of Circulose per year. It goes online this year. “We built this factory in an old pulp mill, repurposing a lot of the existing machines,” explains Cavalli-Björkman. “Our focus on recycling extends to our factories. “
Dillinger and his team decided to launch a version of the 501 for men and women in Circulose, placing an order for tens of thousands of units. The jeans are currently made with a blend of Circulose and organic cotton, but since the new plant in Sundsvall is able to produce greater amounts of Circulose, Dillinger says they will be using more fiber in the jeans.
Levi’s carefully tweaked the design of these 501s to make them easy to recycle using the Renewcell process. For example, the company made all of the jeans from cotton and viscose. This involved replacing pieces of clothing typically made from man-made fibers, such as labels, polyester pockets, and other details, with cotton alternatives. “The advantage of Renewcell’s chemical recycling process is that fabrics can be recycled endlessly without degrading the fibers,” explains Dillinger.
Dillinger says these 501s are arguably the most durable jeans the company has made, allowing Levi’s to reduce its reliance on raw materials and take a big step towards creating a circular system, where its clothes can be. converted into clothing. But Dillinger also says Renewcell isn’t the only sustainable technology he’s excited about. “There are a lot of companies that are working on some really interesting solutions,” he says. “We bet on a lot of them. As an industry, we are not going to move forward until everyone innovates.