Disposable, fast fashion is the antithesis of sustainability. This week, Levi Strauss & Co. debuted a remedy — the Dockers® Wellthread process for responsible sourcing — at the company’s new innovation lab in San Francisco. This approach combines sustainable design and environmental practices with an emphasis on durable materials and supporting the well-being of the workers who make the garments. Wellthread represents the company's first effort to bring these key elements together into one process.
“How you make a garment is just as important as the garment itself,” said Michael Kobori, Levi’s VP of social and environmental sustainability. “We believe that we can use our iconic brands to drive positive sustainable change and profitable results. We invented a category and with that comes the responsibility to continually innovate for each new generation of consumers.”
The Dockers Wellthread design team studied garments from the company’s historical archives to see how clothing has held up over time, and from there created a pilot collection of khakis, jackets and T-shirts. The team engineered lasting value into the design process by reinforcing garments’ points of stress, while making buttonholes stronger and pockets more durable.
The Dockers design team and suppliers worked together to find ways to reduce water and energy use, knowing that small changes can result in big savings. This new process utilizes specialized garment dyeing to reduce both water and energy consumption with cold-water pigment dyes for tops and salt-free, reactive dyes for pants and jackets. In addition, the apparel is dyed in the factory, not in the mill –which allows for greater inventory agility because the garments are dyed to order.
The designers also considered responsible use and reuse and planned for the end of the garments’ lives. Though recycling facilities are not yet widely available, the company anticipates that this will not always be the case and chose its fabrics with this in mind: Extremely long staples of cotton can be more easily recycled, so the brand developed a unique, long-staple yarn for its Wellthread twill. In addition, every garment in the collection uses 100% cotton, thread and pocketing. The sundries include compressed cotton or metal that can be easily extracted by magnets. Using a drying cycle is tough on fabric and hard on the environment, so the design team also added care instructions to wash in cold and a locker loop on the khakis to encourage line-drying.
More than 20 years ago, Levi Strauss & Co. developed its Terms of Engagement, a code of conduct for its suppliers, which implemented standards for labor, safety and the environment that eventually became the industry standard for global supply chains. The company is now piloting a new approach with factories, called “Improving Workers’ Well-Being,” to support programs that will improve the lives of workers in factories around the world. Wellthread khakis are made exclusively at one of the pilot sites.
Rooted in the sustainable culture of Levi Strauss & Co., the initial vision for the Wellthread process and pilot collection took shape as part of the Aspen Institute’s First Movers Fellowship. From there, the idea moved to the company’s new innovation lab, located next to its San Francisco headquarters, where the concept was brought to life, and where sustainable processes are developed for future product lines.
“The Dockers Wellthread process is a remarkable achievement for the apparel industry,” said Nancy McGaw, the founder and deputy director of the business and society program at the Aspen Institute. “The company took a risk on this groundbreaking vision and then supported it all the way through its implementation. Levi Strauss & Co. has a culture that inspires innovation.”
The Wellthread process is just one example of how Levi Strauss & Co. is working to make its products more socially and environmentally sustainable. The Levi’s® Waste<Less™ collection features beautiful, durable jeans that are made from garbage, specifically, an average of eight 12- to 20-oz. recycled plastic bottles per pair of jeans. Another innovation, the Levi’s® Water<Less™ collection reduces the amount of water used to make a pair of jeans. In 2012, the Levi’s® brand proudly made 29 million Water<Less™ units, saving more than 360 million liters of water. Additionally, the company is a member of the Better Cotton Initiative, which reduces water and pesticide use during the cotton growing process, and economically supports hundreds of thousands of cotton farmers. To date, Levi’s says it has blended Better Cotton into more than 5 million pairs of jeans.
A number of fashion brands have recognized the need for an antidote to disposable fashion and begun to produce and operate more responsibly: Designer Daniel Silverstein is making a name for himself as a “zero-waste” designer, using design-driven innovation to create a fashion line without fabric waste; retailers from H&M and M&S to Eileen Fisher and the North Face are both enabling and encouraging shoppers to recycle their used clothing for reuse in new garments; and start-up clothing manufacturer Flint and Tinder has quickly established itself as part of the new vanguard of quality, responsibly made clothing with its painstakingly handmade underwear and T-shirts and its 10-year hoodie – guaranteed for a decade and backed by free mending.