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OM in the News: Levi’s Turns Recycled Plastic into Jeans

October 23, 2012

Most apparel companies work hard to give their clothes the sheen of sophistication or whimsy. Levi Strauss is trying hard not to. The upcoming pitch in stores: “These jeans are made of garbage.” Crushed brown and green plastic bottles will be on display nearby. Eight of those are blended into each pair of Levi’s new Waste‹Less jeans, which are composed of at least 20% recycled plastic, reports Businessweek (Oct. 22-28, 2012).

The Waste‹Less collection is part of a bigger push to reduce Levi’s environmental impact throughout the entire process of making jeans. “We want to build sustainability into everything we do,” says the VP- environmental sustainability. Resource scarcity and increasingly volatile prices for cotton make this a necessity more than a choice.

In 2007, Levi’s was among the first in the apparel industry to conduct a life-cycle assessment. It found that 49% of the water use during the lifetime of a pair of jeans occurred at the very beginning, with cotton farmers. (Another 45% of the water was used by consumers to wash their jeans, typically about 100 times.) So Levi’s began to teach farmers how to grow cotton with less water. In 2010, it also began a marketing campaign to encourage people to wash their jeans less often, in cold water only, and line-dry them. This year, Levi’s will ship 29 million Water‹Less jeans, saving 360 million liters of water.

After the Water‹Less project got underway, Levi’s began thinking about plastic and began testing fibers from recycled colored plastic bottles. When plastic bottles are recycled, they’re sorted by color, cleaned, and sold as polyester flakes. Those flakes can be stretched, or extruded, into fiber, which can be spun into yarn and woven into cotton fabric on high-speed machines. The first batch of Waste‹Less jeans used about 3.5 million bottles all together. “Is turning 8 bottles of plastic into a pair of jeans worth it? I think so,” says the CEO.

Discussion questions:

1. Why is sustainability an important OM issue?

2. What other clothing firms in active in environmental sustainability? What does each do?

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