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Dirty denim’s getting clean

How Levi’s succeeding in making ‘dirty denim’ clean

When Levi Strauss & Co went public late last month, The New York Stock Exchange waved its usual, strict dress code, encouraging its traders to come to work dressed in the brand’s distinctive denim.

Freitagg jeans, photo credit Yves Bachmann

This was not Levi’s first time on the stock market. The company went public in 1971 before it was taken private again by descendants of its founder, Levi Strauss. But this time the brand re-entered the market with a splash, seeing shares sell for 32% more than expected.

Investor demand points to the success of the 185-year-old jeans-maker in maintaining its old, iconic image while tackling new, consumer concerns about how fashion – and denim in particular – affects the environment.

Denim is one of the fashion industry’s most damaging outputs. Made from thirsty cotton, producing just one pair of jeans demands up to 20 bathtubs of water. Jean manufacturers also traditionally use vast amounts of indigo dye and toxic chemicals to add that worn-in, distressed denim effect.

When Greenpeace visited China’s denim producing regions in Guangdong Province, the cost on the landscape and its people was stark. Chemical washes, fabric printing and dyeing turned rivers putrid and deadly for locals.

But Levi’s has been on a decade-long mission to re-brand the fabric to which it owes its iconic image. At the beginning of March 2019, the company unveiled its Wellthread x Outerknow collection, a range created from a cotton-hemp blend. Mainstream designers usually avoid hemp due to its coarse texture. But the material is easier on the environment; hemp demands less water, less space and fewer pesticides than denim’s favoured cotton.

The brand announced the sustainable designs – denim jeans, a trucker jacket and a western style shirt – with a statement by Levi’s VP of innovation, Paul Dillinger. He said fibre technology specialists had helped the brand overcome hemp’s texture problem, softening the material and “giving it a look and feel that is almost indistinguishable from cotton”.

This was not Levi’s first experiment to shake off denim’s dirty reputation. In 2011, the brand launched its Water<less campaign, which promoted the company’s use of water-saving techniques in its finishing process, claiming to reduce the amount of water used by up to 96% for some styles. The campaign was absorbed into the company’s ongoing mission and Levi’s apparently aims to use these techniques in 80% of its products by 2020.

Freitagg jeans, photo credit Yves Bachmann

The Water<less campaign was then replicated in Levi’s WasteLess range, launched two years later. The collection’s jeans and trucker jackets were made from fabric that had been created from at least 20% waste or roughly eight recycled plastic bottles per item.

Levi’s may have made its first pair of blue jeans in 1873 but, today, the company realises that millennials are more likely to part with their money for ethically produced goods, making these environmentally-friendly innovations key. Its efforts are paying off: 2017 saw the company’s highest annual sales growth in a decade and a 2018 study of consumers aged between 13 and 36 found that Levi’s ranked as the second “most authentic” brand, behind Nike.

But innovation is also necessary for Levi’s to trump denim rivals that are chasing its success. Swiss-based company Freitag, best known for its bags made from recycled truck tarpaulin, has developed its own “denim twill” from linen and true hemp. This makes their jeans 100% compostable (except the buttons), according to the company.

Meanwhile Citizens of Humanity have focused their efforts on creating authentic looking jeans without using the traditional chemicals and huge amounts of water. Instead, the Los Angeles-based company uses laser technology to create the vintage or worn-in effect, a technique also used by Levi’s. “It’s not perfect,” says the Citizens of Humanity website. “But technology is providing a solution to reduce our global footprint and at the same time not lose any of the quality and aesthetics in our denim.”

Freitagg jeans, photo credit Yves Bachmann

Patagonia have also launched their own “clean jeans” campaign, promoting their denim’s organic cotton and new dye process that uses 84% less water and 30% less energy.

Clean denim has become a competitive space, making innovation a priority for jeans brand everywhere but especially for Levi’s, which has a historic image to defend. Last year, Levi’s “greener jeans” earned it the number 37 spot on Fortune Magazine’s Change the World list of companies “that do well by doing good”. For a company that once hooked its image to America’s own cultural capital – from cowboys to Hollywood to Woodstock’s hippies – perhaps its future success will rely on its ability to re-adapt to an industry that demands cleaner, greener denim.