Paul Dillinger, Levi's

LIVING THE BRAND: Levi’s vice president of global innovation Paul Dillinger spoke quickly and passionately about how the fashion industry can take steps to become more sustainable, closing out the two-day Sustainable Business and Design Conference on Thursday night at F.I.T.

Wearing a white cottonized hemp jacket from the Levi’s Wellthread x Outerknown spring/summer collection, he told attendees that by touching it they would understand the possibilities of making the fabric into something lovely and soft (and not scratchy). The company’s first foray into the use of a new form of “cottonized hemp” denim — hemp that’s been altered to feel just like cotton, Dillinger’s embroidered trucker jacket has removable metal hardware for recyclability.

He also highlighted the company’s commitment to innovation and sustainability. Dillinger stressed the need to embrace circular industrial systems to reduce pollution rather than because “you want an excuse to grow.” Environmental issues such as deforestation and desertification are offshoots of overproduction. Dillinger suggested fashion companies and designers adopt the decluttering mantra from Marie Kondo, asking themselves pre-production if the item will bring people joy.

Dillinger spoke of how the fast-fashion industry has an incredible appetite “that is on steroids at this point.” In addition, the media reach of Hollywood starlets on the red carpet affects how young consumers aspire for statement-looking gowns. So much so that many girls can spend $900 on acetate dresses that are usually worn only once and are sometimes purchased by families that are living below poverty levels.

Afterward, Dillinger discussed the prospect of using hemp. Having targeted hemp as important, Levi’s is testing it in white first, and plans to do so with indigo next season. Executives are keen to find out whether it washes down like a real denim, Dillinger said.

“If you look at basic U.S. trade policy, to import a garment that’s chief value is hemp is about 2 to 2 1/2 percent versus a cotton garment that is about 18 percent. Once people start to understand that the macroeconomics are favorable to more sustainable fibers in the world, then that’s going to take off,” he said. “We’re really excited with the launch of this season’s hemp, I think there is a lot of potential there.”

Dillinger continued, “There is a lot of frenzy around hemp right now but it’s ill-informed frenzy. People really haven’t figured out how to handle it and manage it through the system. We want to do that first, so that we’re not putting sustainability issues like this at risk. What’s coming up is two more years of hard work and research, but in the market in order to get some of these kinks worked out. Right now it’s positioned not as a super-premium thing. It’s a $128 jean and it looks great. When we get to that place where we flip to a chief value hemp, everyone’s goal is to get to $55 or up. That’s when the economics flipping [will] become a really affordable option.”