Most sustainability efforts by fashion brands tend to focus on cleaning up their supply chains. These endeavors are certainly positive, but that’s just the first part of a garment’s life cycle. The second part only begins after a customer purchases the garment, and often it ends in a landfill. In fact, about 10.5 million tons of clothing head to landfills in the US each year.
An ambitious new program by Levi’s aims to help. The American denim brand is expanding its recycling program (pdf) to all its US locations, including its outlet stores. Customers will be able to drop off clean, dry clothing or footwear from any brand at their nearby Levi’s, and Levi’s will work with its partner, I:Collect, which also works on recycling for brands including H&M and Puma, to make the best use of it.
The program is part of Levi’s broader sustainability efforts, which also include its program to reduce water use (pdf). It has been running in pilot form in San Francisco for about a year, and Michael Kobori, the vice president of sustainability at Levi’s, says the success it’s had there motivated the company to take it national.
“This is really based on that experience and the fact that it is working,” he tells Quartz. “We wanted to expand it and begin to take that next step towards our vision of a more circular economy or closed-loop system for our products.”
Levi’s sends all donated clothes to an I:Collect facility, where the company hand sorts the items into over 300 categories to determine what to do with them. Items that are wearable will be resold so they continue to be worn. Pieces that aren’t wearable will be repurposed, which generally means being shredded and used as building insulation, cushioning, filling for car seats, or even filling for stuffed animals. Some will be turned into fibers to be used for new clothing.
As Kobori mentioned above, Levi’s ultimate goal is to close the loop, which is sustainability speak for being able to recycle an old product and turn it into a new one without having to use virgin resources. Doing so poses big challenges, though. The first step is setting up the infrastructure to do it, which Levi’s is aiming to do across its more than 500 stores in the Americas, Europe, and Asia by 2020.
Then there are the challenges of the recycling process itself. When you chop up cotton fibers for recycling, they get shorter, which makes them weaker and less suitable for use in a garment. According to Kobori, currently a garment can only be made from about 20% recycled cotton before it fails to meet its quality standards. The company is working with its mills to increase that amount, however, experimenting with blending in pima cotton, a long-staple fiber.
Fabrics made of a blend of polyester and cotton are troublesome too, since the fibers have to be separated before they can be reused. H&M and Kering are both tackling this issue by working with textile recycling company Worn Again.
And then there’s the challenge of getting people to think of recycling clothes the way they do other products. Levi’s offers customers a voucher for 20% off a purchase if they recycle old clothing, a decision skeptics might point to as just a way to get people shopping. Kobori says it’s just about changing people’s behavior.
Either way, it’s worth a start.