Levi's Now Blending Hemp With Cotton for More Sustainable Fabric

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©. Charlotte Ekberg (used with permission)

Hemp has half the carbon footprint of carbon, but clothing manufacturers have been reluctant to use it until now.

Levi Strauss & Co. has been working hard in recent years to rebrand itself as a forward-thinking, sustainably-minded denim company. It has done an admirable job, introducing a water-saving finishing process, offering recycling services for old clothes in all U.S. stores, launching a line of jeans made from old fishing nets, and encouraging clients to wash their jeans less frequently (or never).

Now, it has just announced a new collection made from a cotton-hemp blend. The Levi’s® WellthreadTM x Outerknown collection launched on March 4th and is the company's first foray into using a special kind of hemp that has been "cottonized" to feel like cotton.

Hemp is known to be a far more sustainable material than cotton. It is a densely growing plant that chokes out competing weeds and reduces the need for pesticides. It requires half as much water as cotton to grow, and when you factor in processing, the difference is four-fold. It also returns 60 percent of the nutrients it takes from the soil back to the ground.

The biggest hurdle is that hemp feels coarse; this is why it hasn't been embraced by clothing manufacturers up until now. In the words of Levi's VP of product innovation, Paul Dillinger, "This is the first time we’ve been able to offer consumers a cottonized hemp product that feels just as good, if not better, than cotton." A press release goes on to explain that the company is "employing a process developed by fiber technology specialists that softens the hemp, giving it a look and feel that is almost indistinguishable from cotton."

hemp-cotton jeans

© Charlotte Ekberg (used with permission)

The jeans and jacket in this collection are made from a 70/30 blend of cotton and hemp, and all of the hemp was sourced from a crop that was exclusively rain-fed; it required no additional irrigation and thus reduced the water used in cultivation by 30 percent.

Additionally, the collection contains T-shirts made from both recycled denim and the cotton-hemp blend, and a pair of board shorts that are 100 percent single-fiber nylon; this means it can be fully recycled, as no separation of fibers needs to occur:

"All materials – the fabric, the eyelets, the core, the stitching – are made from nylon, meaning it can theoretically be recycled in perpetuity and re-made into other nylon garments, thus achieving the closed-loop recyclability that has long eluded apparel companies."
nylon board shorts

© Charlotte Ekberg (used with permission)

All of these are great initiatives, indicative of a fashion industry that knows it has to change or else be held accountable for widespread ecological damage. I expect we'll see a lot more interesting projects coming from Levi's.