When Paul Dillinger, the head of global product innovation at Levi Strauss & Co., took to the stage to speak at the Sustainable Brands Conference in San Diego, he had a bit of a challenge. Right before him, Eileen Howard Boone from CVS Pharmacy had given a presentation (followed by a rousing standing ovation) about the national chain's paradigm-shifting decision to stop selling tobacco products in all CVS stores later this year.

“If I define myself, I’m just a fashion designer,” began Dillinger, noting the tough act he had to follow. “Which doesn’t present as terribly noble in comparison.”

But Dillinger went on to give a talk so inspiring that by the end, surely everyone in the room wanted to quit their jobs and become "just a fashion designer" like Dillinger. Or at the very least, to seriously rethink the way they take care of their clothes. Stopping the sales of tobacco is indeed noble, but revolutionizing the fashion industry is pretty righteous on its own.

Ever since the beginning when Levi Strauss headed west to outfit miners during the gold rush, Dillinger explained, sustainability has been inherent. Strauss created pants reinforced with a copper rivet to create durability and strength at a point of weakness, solving the problem of pants wearing out too quickly. 

Levi's rivet

Durability-increasing copper rivets have been a hallmark since Levi's beginning. (Photo: rohit gowaikar/Flickr)

“This was an innovation in the sustainability space, the creation of lasting value through durability,” he said. “It demonstrates how easy it can be to simply think about making something more useful, something lasting longer. We have a great pair of Levi’s 501 jeans in our archive that are over 130 years old and you can wear them today. They really are products made to last.”

Levi's had been trucking along successfully during the last century, but then a bit over 20 years ago the company developed its Terms of Engagement strategy. This code of conduct for suppliers implemented strict standards for labor, safety and the environment. Although it was risky in terms of creating a competitive disadvantage, it had the opposite effect; in fact, it worked to create new standards for corporate responsibility in general and put Levi's at the front of leadership and sustainability. 

Then several years ago the company took the nest step with a detailed analysis of the whole lifecycle process of its products, and the results surprised them. Where they thought they had a huge impact, they didn’t, and where they didn’t think they were having much of an impact, they were. They started innovating in areas where they had control, and in the last three years alone, for example, they have saved 770 million liters of fresh water during manufacturing.

For improvements in supply chain sustainability, they partnered with some of their competitors to create the Better Cotton Initiative to facilitate improvement in the cotton industry and have been working hard to address other areas that could be improved.

And now they’ve taken it all even further with the Wellthread methodology, which was developed around the Dockers Wellthread collection. Dillinger talked about some of the philosophy behind the new approach. For instance, he explained that designers were always trying to clean up their sustainability “messes,” like mistakes or the overzealous deployment of resources. And he realized that things were working in reverse; a new direction was in order.

“Instead of doing backend problem-fixing, we made them front-end not problem-making; to think of a way to design without making messes,” he said.

“How do we understand our role in a system not as component re-calibrators but as system re-imaginers?" he asked. "How do we understand impact in the field? How do we design for reduced impact once the product is purchased? How do we create a system of design, a methodology not a product, that changes the way we engage? And that’s the principle of Wellthread.”

To start with, the Wellthread method looks at material sourcing. Should a designer pick a fabric they like as "a designer"? Fashionable, great hand feel, pretty? Dillinger says an emphatic, “no."

“I like that fabric because I know it was cultivated in a field where kids didn’t work. I like that fabric because I know that its fiber length is going to be so long that when we do recycle it, it’s going to have first generation value. I like that fabric because of its diversity, its recyclability, the values that generated it," he said (with evident passion). "I like that button because that button is made out of pressed recycled cotton. I like that interfacing because it’s cotton and not polyester, I like that thread because it’s cotton and not polyester. I like this thing because it can be 100 percent pure fiber input that conforms to a cradle-to-cradle fiber strategy. Those are the things that I want to like as a designer, not that it’s pretty, not that it’s fashionable. I want to put social value and environmental stewardship as co-equal against trend and against fashion value.”

And the crowd goes wild.

He went on to enthusiastically elaborate on the importance of partnering with NGOs and working with facilities like the five Wellthread pilot factories that are pushing the envelope in terms of  social and environmental responsibility. “That is the work a designer should be doing,” he said. “Not just coming up with the next, the new, the now.”

On their end of the deal, Levi’s is working pretty hard. They are addressing supply chains and manufacturing; but they also feel passionate about ensuring that their products don’t become wildly unsustainable once they’ve left the store.

Levi's sustainability

Line-drying saves a lot of energy and increases your clothes longevity! (Photo: Sandra Cunningham/Shutterstock)

“As we all know, caring for jeans, caring for clothes … it’s a highly resource-intensive process. But clothes have the opportunity to last if we care for them right,” he said.

“There are things I can do as a designer to change how the resources are allocated, but there are things that all of you can do as consumers. Let me convince you of this,” he said. “We all know that we care for our sweaters in a different way from the rest of our clothes. We tend to them differently. Some animal got shaved and it got turned into a little wooly sweater and we treat it differently, right? We tend to it almost like we tend to a pet, like a little cat. We’re nicer to that sweater.”

Right? So consider his next proposition.

“Cotton grew out of the ground, a little flower that grew out of a plant. But we treat the clothes like candy wrappers, we take them off and crumple them up and throw them away. All they need is a little love; a little water and a little bit of sunshine. What if you started thinking of the cotton clothes that you buy as flowers? A little bit of water; a little bit of sunlight. And treat them a little bit differently,” he said.

“I guarantee they will last longer … and they’ll love you back.”

And who doesn’t want their jeans — and the planet — to love them back? Wash infrequently, let dry in the sun, pamper, love; just like a flower.

You can see Dillinger speaking about his work and inspiration in The Aspen Institute's First Movers video below.

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