Stacy Flynn & Paul Dillinger
CEO (Evrnu) & Vice-president of product innovation (Levi Strauss) Evrnu & Levi Strauss & Co
Design for dis-assembly is rarely part of the design process
In May, textile technology startup Evrnu and global jeanswear leader Levi Strauss & Co announced the creation of the world's first jeans made from regenerated postconsumer cotton waste. Using a patent-pending recycling technology, discarded consumer waste was converted into renewable fibre. The first prototype, in the form of a pair of iconic Levi's 511 jeans, was said to represent a future where textile waste would be reduced considerably and cotton garments could be continually regenerated to create a more sustainable world. Till that moment, there hadn't been a viable solution that could effectively transform old clothes into new without compromising quality or strength. But now, discarded cotton clothing can be turned into a new cotton-like fibre, creating new possibilities. Subir Ghosh spoke to Paul Dillinger, vice-president of product innovation, Levi Strauss & Co and Stacy Flynn, CEOof Evrnu about the landmark technological breakthrough which can create a circular economy that extends the life of cotton and eliminates waste by breathing new life into used clothing. Dillingerand Flynn dwell at length on the prototype and the roadmap ahead.
The statement issued by Evrnu and Levi’s on the launch of the prototype talked about a circular economy. Are you planning to keep the concept/ technology to yourself? Or, are you thinking of expanding to other brands and companies too?
PD: Levi’s is deeply committed to research and development efforts that will reduce the resource impact of apparel manufacturing. With Evrnu, we see a potential solution to reduce overall impact of Levi Strauss & Co, and for the industry as a whole. Our goal is to be the first to market with regenerated cotton as a demonstration of sustainability leadership and commitment to our values, but true success means broad deployment of circular material streams throughout the industry.
SF: We currently have an early adopter programme and have two major US brands, including Levi Strauss & Co, signed into it. We are also in conversation with several other potential partners. We will not be keeping the concept and technology to ourselves; instead, we will be licensing and deploying it on behalf of the brand/ retailers.
Evrnu-Levi's must have been deliberating on this technological innovation for a while. What was the exact trigger for working on this particular prototype?
PD: This partnership started with a conversation between myself and Evrnu over a year ago at the Sustainable Textile and Apparel Conference at FIT. The project evolved from there, and the first proof-ofconcept yardage came off the loom in February.
SF: Deliberation was actually quite quick with Levi's. Levi's had just finished an extensive environmental impact study and realised that 60 per cent of their negative impact comes from the fibre in their products. Considering Evrnu is a fibre technology company focusing on extreme reductions in impact, the deliberations and prototyping process was a natural fit, and went by quite quickly.
Could you share some details about the process itself? How long did it take for you to work on this? How many people were involved at your end? How much investment did it require?
PD: With any important or meaningful innovation, there is always some disruption to business as usual. That's why we chose to keep the team small at first and treated it as a design concept, rather than a supply chain initiative. It's given us an opportunity to incubate slowly and thoughtfully without any implications around scale or costing.
SF: We started researching the technology in 2011. My co-founder, Christopher Stanev, and I started by mapping out the textile/fashion system to figure out where the best point of intervention would be. In this process, I discovered two things:
The amount of resources required for fibre are staggering. Especially considering that 90 per cent of the apparel industry comprises polyester or cotton-both of which require a tremendous amount of natural resources to produce.
In the United States, we have a tremendous amount of waste around the apparel industry. After we put all the value and resources into textiles and apparel, consumers end up throwing away 80 per ent of their discarded clothing directly to landfills. The rest 20 per cent is recovered currently, and of the 20 per cent the way that it's being broken down and reused is inefficient and there is a great deal of room for improvement.
In 2014, we were able to do a benchtop sample taking cotton fibre, breaking it down to a liquid and re-extruding it using a syringe. From there we were able to scale up our process. We are now on our eighth prototype, we have a mini extrusion line running and it required a lot of collaboration between my co-founder and myself working together to develop the technology. Our own money constituted the majority of the initial investment for the first two years and we put in our own time for the first three years. Eventually, we started working with investors in 2015. We are declining at this time to specify the current amount of investment to date.
One doesn't always end up with the exact product that one has in mind at the onset itself. One has to work on a trial-and-error basis. Could you tell us about some of the bottlenecks you ran into while working on the prototype?
PD: The prototype we've made together with Evrnu demonstrates that this technology is viable. It will be a long, iterative process to get us to a consumer experience that is indistinguishable from virgin cotton. The principal constraint now is scale-taking the technology out of the lab and into a manufacturing setting.
SF: One of the biggest bottlenecks we've run into was the initial funding to get the project off the ground. Since then we have been able to move quite efficiently and have run into very few major bottlenecks. All our work has been centred around (and tested on) post-consumer garment waste (the same feedstock we will use beyond the prototyping phase) but there have been no real technological bottlenecks we haven't been able to overcome within a few weeks.
The prototype is an excellent start. Now, how do you plan sourcing the discarded apparel so that the Levis 511 jeans can enter mass/ commercial production? Will consumers be able to enter a Levi's store with their old clothes?
PD: I'd recommend speaking with someone at Evrnu as they have more insight into sourcing the apparel.
SF: Levi's already employs a take back collection programme in their stores. We are working on our scaling plan with Levi's and at this point we can't comment on the specifics of that plan, including timing.
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