NEW YORK — Paul Dillinger, head of global product innovation at Levi Strauss & Co., spoke about some sustainable practices that the company does really well — and others that it doesn’t do as well — at the Sustainability in Fashion and Textiles seminar at F.I.T. here Monday.
A fashion designer by training — he previously worked at Calvin Klein and DKNY — Dillinger said he has been working against the fast-fashion paradigm. At Levi’s, he’s been involved in working on the 501 jean, which he said had the “highest resale” value in the secondary market, which presents an interesting opportunity.
“How do you deliver clothes that accrue value? How do you craft clothing that can achieve some emotional durability, that are intended to be valued over time, rather than something that will be jettisoned like a candy wrapper after six months?” he asked the audience. “How do you re-brand the stain itself or the rip in the jeans?”
He said he works for a company that allows him to consider things like “slow merchandising strategies.”
Dillinger goes to work every day and designs jeans. Each pair of jeans uses 33.4 kg of CO2 and 3,781 liters of water. Considering the drought in California, with each pair of jeans he designs “the impact is extraordinary, so is the opportunity.”
“The mandate for action is obvious, the potential for change is powerful,” said Dillinger. Over the past four years, one billion liters of water have been saved. Finishing is 1 percent of that. He said that $3 billion has been spent on 1 percent of the total impact. “What’s being left on the table is a staggering amount, “ he said.
Cotton presents another problem. The fiber accounts for 25 percent of the world’s agricultural pollution, he said. The top cotton producers are the U.S., Brazil, India and China, and others include Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Bangladesh and Pakistan. He said if the world tries to wean itself off cotton, struggling democracies would be thrown into chaos.
He developed a program at Dockers called Wellthread, where the brand approached the design process in doing the right thing at every step. They wanted to see what it would cost, because there’s always the presumption that doing the right thing and doing the profitable thing are at cross purposes. The initiative was conceived at the Aspen Institute’s First Movers Fellowship founded by Dillinger, and then was turned into product at Levi’s innovation lab. Wellthread ranges from the workers who make the clothes to materials and design, consumer care and recyclability.
The Dockers’ Wellthread collection used specialized garment-dyeing processes that reduced both water and energy used, cold-water pigment dyes to tops and salt-free reactive dyes for pants. The collection was produced in one of five factories where the company was piloting a new approach to improving the lives of apparel workers. When all was said and done, he said the higher price point of the product, which looked exactly the same as other products in the market, led to “an enormous failure” for Dockers. They decided to do Wellthread for Levi’s. He said if they were going to fail small at Docker’s they’d rather fail big at Levi’s. He said that Wellthread is now a laboratory for progress.
He also spoke about Levi’s new collaboration with Google for wearable technology called Project Jacquard. “Up until a few months ago, I hated wearables,” said Dillinger. “How do you weave tactile interaction? It’s an opportunity to create meaningful interaction through gesture. It will be sustainable when it’s produced.”
As reported, conductive fibers, developed by Google through a Japanese firm, can be woven into virtually any type of woven textile. Levi’s anticipates it will have products based on Project Jacquard in the market by the fall 2016 season.