James Curleigh rather likes his new jeans, even if they are made of plastic. For all that, they’re still pretty comfortable. If you’re imagining a few lumpy bits or a scratchy section, think again: these jeans are part of a new collection made with denim incorporating consumer waste, specifically, recycled plastic PET bottles, around eight of them per pair. These are broken down and, ultimately, produce a polyester thread that can be woven into denim.
So far, so greenwash. Curleigh is the new global president of his company. And the point is, he stresses, that that company is Levi’s. “There are brands out there making the most sustainable jeans ever made but the problem is that, as much as I’d encourage them in what they do, they can’t scale up to make a real difference,” says Curleigh, a long-haired, guitar-loving dude who joined Levi’s from Keen Footwear. And he isn’t kidding: the first run of the first season of the new, so-called Waste-Less line is 400,000 pairs. “And we’re in a leadership position to encourage other brands to make similar moves.”
It would be worth the effort — and not least in financial terms: cotton is not only an environmentally hazardous and expensive crop, but its price is so volatile that long-range planning for clothing companies is now tough. Certainly, denim is not the most environmentally friendly product, even allowing for the fact that, as Curleigh only half jokes, in some senses it’s the most sustainable clothing around: unlike fast fashion products, a pair of jeans is worn for years and then converted into cut-offs or finds demand on the second-hand/vintage market. But there are, for example, the chemical dyes used for mass production, which the industry has done much to address.
What it hasn’t, until recently, been able to tackle is the truly vast amount of water it needs to make its ubiquitous fabric. Levi’s — which in the US has a public image as a far more progressive company than it is perceived as being around the rest of the world — has also addressed that by combining several wet stages of the finishing process into one. The result? The company used some 360 million fewer gallons of water last year. A couple of years ago, Levi’s also started using new tags explaining to shoppers how to wash their jeans properly too — in short, less often.
Even so, Curleigh concedes that Levi’s is never likely to pitch itself as an out-and-out eco brand. “I don’t think it will ever lead with sustainability, and we’re not going to say ‘hey, check us out, we make jeans with waste’, because that only invites the response: ‘yeah, and you still ship your jeans half-way round the world’,” he says. “But the company does have the obligation and the opportunity to find better solutions — because what it does is big enough to matter.”
That and because sustainability, he argues, is the “edge of the modern front” and the edge — whether that be pioneering the great west, being at the heart of US industrialism or a symbol of the fall of the Berlin Wall — is where the company has historically been. “We’re talking now about a change of culture of such significance that our kids will look back and say, ‘when all that sustainability stuff was going on, what did you do, dad?’”
Sure, Curleigh says, maybe most consumers won’t be that into Levi’s Waste-Less products. The collection, which feels and looks indistinguishable from the all-cotton products, also features a trucker jacket and women’s skinny-fit jeans. Some, he agrees, the real denim-heads, will be downright upset by the seeming affront to a pure product — “they’ll say it’s like topping up a Guinness with a Sprite — just wrong”. But the few who do buy into it will, he reckons, be opinion formers. It’s about spreading the word.
“There’s a change of attitude coming,” says Curleigh. “The younger consumer now knows that sustainability and sustainable clothing are the right things to buy into. But is it the cool thing to do? I think it will go the way of smoking. Smoking was cool but now to not smoke has become cooler. Sustainability will be cool.”