Levi’s Makes Wearing Garbage Fashionable with ‘Plastic’ Jeans

Levi's jeans

This spring, you might be wearing the latest in denim fashion trends courtesy of Levi’s: used plastic bottles.

“These jeans are made of garbage” is the pitch line Levi Strauss is using for its latest denim line, Waste‹Less, which uses eight brown or green plastic bottles to make every pair of the jeans. Unveiled last fall, the jeans are hitting stores as part of spring denim collections and range in price from $69 to $128—quite a bit for wearable garbage, but still a comparable price for a pair of good quality jeans.

Twenty percent of every pair of the Waste‹Less jeans are made from entirely recycled plastic materials, and store displays will feature crushed soda bottles to help illustrate the brand’s commitment to reducing its environmental impact.

Levi Strauss was once known as the workingman’s brand of durable denim capable of standing up to hard labor, whether on the farm or in the factory. The company now wants to be known as the sustainability brand, working awareness into every aspect of the business. And as the biggest jean maker in the world (sales in 2011 were nearly $5 billion)—the impact Levi Strauss can have in fostering a green message is immeasurable.

Changes started happening for Levi’s in 2007 when it assessed an environmental impact on Dockers and 501 jeans, reports Businessweek, “Levi’s found that 49 percent of the water use during the lifetime of a pair of 501 jeans occurred at the very beginning, with cotton farmers.” The company joined the Better Cotton Initiative in order to help farmers in countries including Pakistan, India, Brazil, and Mali to reduce the amount of water used in growing cotton. While growing organic cotton has proved too expensive for the brand to continue at this time (they killed their organic jean line in 2008), the low-water cotton is proving to be just as beneficial a pursuit as water scarcity, particularly in the cotton-growing countries, is a very serious issue.

The first low-water cotton was finally harvested last year—and made its way into more than 5 million pairs of jeans at a rate of about 5 percent per pair. By 2015 the goal is 20 percent per pair. To further encourage better resource management, Levi’s also ran a marketing campaign suggesting people wash their jeans less often, using only cold water, and line-drying them instead of putting them through energy-draining dryers.

Now, as the new Waste‹Less is hitting stores, 3.5 million plastic bottles have avoided ending up in landfills, or the ocean in the company’s first run of about 400,000 items (including jean jackets). While only a small drop in the plastic bucket—Americans consumed 33 billion bottles of soda in 2011, reports Businessweek—it’s certainly a good starting point, setting an example for industry and making consciousness affordable and fashionable. “Is turning eight bottles of plastic into a pair of jeans worth it? I think so,” James Curleigh, president of the Levi’s brand told Businessweek. “Some things are more for making a point than a purpose. We want critical mass.”

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Image: Levi Strauss

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.