Earlier this year, American denim giant Levi Strauss & Co. asked consumers to be more aware of the impact washing their jeans had on the environment. Now, in its continued sustainability efforts, the company is ramping up its clothing recycling initiative. Levi Strauss recently announced that all main and outlet Levi’s stores will participate in the initiative in which customers can drop off old clothing and shoes to be recycled – not only will they receive a store discount, but will also contribute to the company’s commitment to supporting a “circular economy” by 2020.
The statistics are bleak. In a given year, American consumers discard more than 28 billion pounds of clothing, textiles, and shoes, according to statistics from Levi’s. While charitable organizations collect about 15 percent of this unwanted clothing, the remaining 24 billion pounds of dumped items end up sitting in landfills.
The company’s commitment to counteracting these wasteful habits, while also reusing old materials for new clothes, is part of a wider push in the fashion world to embrace more sustainable practices. For instance, companies and brands like Nike and Gucci have been doing their best to make sustainability trendy.
“It’s pretty massive isn’t it?” asked Michael Kobori, vice president of sustainability at Levi Strauss, when discussing the amount of clothing waste that sits in landfills. “We’ve already been doing this (the recycle program) in some of our stores in the U.K., and we have plans to expand this to stores in Europe and the Asia Pacific region. The next step is really to continue to build out this whole support system for an infrastructure where you can create a circular economy for apparel.”
The inspiration behind this drive to recycle stemmed from the denim company’s “lifecycle assessment” study in 2007, which was carried out to examine the environmental impact of Levi’s products “from cradle to grave.” Out of this sprung programs like Water<Less, a process to reduce the water used in “garment finishing” by up to 96 percent.
“We’ve been asking, ‘how do we begin to engage consumers with understanding the way they impact the environment?’” Kobori said. “Now we are ready to begin the next step, of recycling clothing when no longer in use. We are setting our sights on that broader ‘clothes loop’ of how do we support a more circular economy for apparel?”
Part of the challenge comes in changing people’s habits. While it is now second nature for many consumers to recycle paper goods or plastic bottles, for some reason, clothes are items that just get thrown in the trash.
“You know, I couldn’t really speculate as to why people don’t view clothing as recyclable," Kobori added. "Our goal with this (initiative) is really to change people’s behavior, to make recycling clothing as commonplace as recycling a newspaper."
The program involves a merchandising promotional push. It fits hand in hand with the launch of a new Levi’s denim collection for women and “Friday Fashion Exchanges” at the company’s stores where women are invited to try some items in the new collection while bringing their “gently worn jeans” for recycling. These Friday events take place through Aug. 28.
The cynicism of corporate retail cross-promotions aside, Kobori stressed that the company is genuinely committed to forcing the textiles world to re-think the way clothes are made.
“We represent ‘slow fashion,’ as opposed to the ‘fast fashion’ trend out there. We stand for lasting value and the durability of a product that you can own for a long time. You wear it, use it, and at the end of that product’s useful life, you can now recycle it,” Kobori added. “You know, one day we hope that we won’t need to use virgin cotton. That’s the far off vision – really, someday, we will be ‘harvesting’ the denim out of people’s closets instead of harvesting virgin cotton. That’s the goal. To completely close the loop.”