The clothing industry has a serious waste problem. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the fashion industry used 53 million tons of new fibers to produce clothing in 2015. McKinsey & Company, a management consulting firm, estimates that 60 percent of all clothing produced winds up in incinerators or landfills within 12 months — the Ellen MacArthur Foundation reports it's up to 73 percent. And, that staggering amount of waste has grown with increasing rates of consumption. According to McKinsey, “clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014, and the number of garments purchased each year by the average consumer increased by sixty percent.”
Of the 53 million tons of new fibers used in clothing production, 26 percent was cotton. Used in knits to make t-shirts and sweats, cotton is also primarily used to make denim. Levi's — one of the world’s biggest apparel companies, with a reported net revenue of $5.6 billion in 2018 — has been addressing the environmental impact of denim with innovations in how cotton is grown, how it's spun into thread, how it's dyed and and how jeans are constructed.
But, the amount of jeans that are thrown away is still a major concern. Increasing consumption puts considerable stress on natural resources, and discarded garments are a huge monetary loss (the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates $100 billion worth of materials each year). The solution that many brands have been actively pursuing is called circularity: recycling used or discarded clothing to make fibers for new garments. Until this point, the process has been largely theoretical because the technology and manufacturing systems did not exist. But, a new innovation by Swedish startup re:newcell is changing that.
Levi's partnered with re:newcell to produce WellThread 502 jeans made with organic cotton and a material called Circulose. The Swedish brand's revolutionary new fiber is made from 50 percent recycled denim and 50 percent sustainably-sourced viscose. The jeans look and feel like traditional offerings, and come with a worn-in wash that shows the denim's slightly red-cast shade of indigo. But, the material is unlike anything the brand has produced in its 167-year history.
Circulose — a man-made cellulosic fiber similar to viscose, lyocell and model — is made from plant-based cellulose pulp that is processed and turned into a long, soft filament fiber (MMCFs are often used as an affordable alternative to silk or nylon). While many traditional MMCFs use wood as an input, Circulose uses discarded 100-percent cotton textiles and garments to produce a high-quality fiber.
"I always prefer a simple solution, but we simply cannot keep growing more cotton to meet growing consumer demand," says Levi's vice president Paul Dillinger, Head of Global Product Innovation and Premium Collection Design. "The world’s supply of freshwater is limited, and cotton is a thirsty crop. Until consumption can be re-aligned with sustainable supply, it’s incumbent upon the industry to activate garment waste as a material resource…and there’s plenty of waste to activate."
The process is similar to recycling paper: incoming waste fabrics are broken down using water, the color is stripped from the material using an eco-friendly bleach, any synthetic fibers are removed and the mixture is dried. Then the sheet of Circulose material is extruded into a long viscose filament that can be combined with cotton and woven or knit into a new fabric.
"How these post-consumer MMCFs can be used is determined by their form, and their form is determined by the manner of their extrusion," Dillinger says. "If you think of the extrusion process like a fancy showerhead — where variable settings change the force and form of the water as it flows out — you get a good picture of the different ways that extrusion conditions can change the characteristics of the fiber."
"By using extrusion spinnerets that roughly correspond to the fiber morphology of natural cotton, we can better deploy the post-consumer MMCF as a "like for like" alternative to virgin cotton," he says. "Going forward, we can explore other spinneret configurations to design fiber profiles with specific performance attributes. It’s possible that athletic performance features — like moisture wicking and thermo-adaptation — can be achieved with fibers made from recycled cotton rather than fossil fuels."
Jeans made from recycled denim reduce stress on natural resources like water, and limit chemical use and CO2 emissions. The $148 WellThread 502 jeans, though a small sample of what Levi's offers, are a proof of concept. The Circulose blend — Levi's uses 60 percent organic cotton and 40 percent Circulose — has the potential to be utilized in many of Levi's products if successful. As such, the WellThread 502 jeans are designed to go back into re:newcell's recovery system and are only made of natural materials (even tread, trims and backings are cotton).
Re:newcell's system is different from others in the clothing industry. Though mechanical recycling facilities are already used, the product they produce is not ideal. Cotton is broken down into small, weak fibers which are blended with synthetic fibers to make them stronger. But by doing that, the resulting material is no longer recyclable. Re:newcell's recovery system produces a material that is not only recyclable, but it performs similarly to many traditional materials used today.
"The re:newcell system enables the circular re-use of materials without degrading the material value," Dillinger says. "With its potential to accommodate mixed cellulosic fiber inputs, it may lead to a future where the strict single-fiber constraints of circular design can loosen-up a little. More garments can go into the Renewcell system, and the Circulose fibers have the potential for much broader application than conventionally recycled cotton."
Circulose is made in a recycling facility in Kristinehamn, Sweden. The facility recovers and reuses chemicals used in the recycling process, and the plant runs on renewable energy. The water used in the process is much less than what's needed to grow cotton, and after it's been used and treated, it's clean enough to be released into Lake Vänern nearby.
Re:newcell was founded in 2012 and opened its Kristinehamn facility in 2017. Currently, it can produce 7,000 tons of Circulose every year. While some skeptics may ask about added environmental stress from shipping materials to and from Sweden, Dillinger says it "would be a negligible variable, more than likely offset by the 20 percent reduction in virgin material use."
"When it comes to commercializing a new material innovation, our industry sets the bar way too high," he says. "More often than not, our supply chain expects new ideas to come to market with performance parity, price parity, consumer experience parity, lead-time parity, and mill efficiency parity right out of the gate. If we hold out for conveniently distributed supply points that are pre-aligned with our established mill base, we’ll never get anything done."
As re:newcell continues to grow, with support from industry leaders like Levi's, it has potential to shift the way garments are designed and manufactured, lessening the environmental impact of the clothing industry. While the brand has just one facility now, as demand grows, Dillinger notes that new facilities could open in "developed urban centers, where outsized consumption and capacity constraints at the city dump necessitate new solutions to address the landfill waste crisis."
But for now, the Kristinehamn facility is producing the world's supply of Circulose. And for Dillinger, that's ok. "If Sweden is where a good idea happens, we can work with Sweden," he says. Because it's that idea that has the power to usher in a new era of denim at Levi's, and change the course of an entire industry.