Brainstorm HealthBrainstorm DesignBrainstorm TechMost Powerful WomenCEO Initiative

Sustainable design should start with the chili-stained shirt you throw away, says Levi product head Paul Dillinger

May 25, 2022, 5:45 PM UTC
Paul Dillinger, Levi Straus & Co’s vice president and head of global product innovation, speaks with Fortune senior reporter Phil Wahba on the issue of circularity and fashion.
Rebecca Greenfield for Fortune Magazine

Circularity is a model of sustainable production and consumption in which materials are recovered and recycled. Imagine purchasing a shirt from your favorite retailer, you wear it for a few years, and when it’s worn out, you return it to where you bought it. Then said retailer deconstructs the shirt and reuses the basic materials to create something new. Maybe you even get a discount on your next purchase as a reward for your recycling. Sounds like a good way to fix our overconsumption problem?

Unfortunately, while some companies are building toward circularity, fast fashion and complex supply chains present myriad obstacles that are preventing the garment industry from being able to fully embrace it.

The industry’s pivot to sustainability should begin with the garments most likely to be tossed out—like a stained T-shirt or a pair of underwear, said Paul Dillinger, Levi Straus & Co’s vice president and head of global product innovation on Tuesday at Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference.

“The buzz around circularity misses the real point of it,” he said, noting that conversations around sustainable manufacturing don’t typically address the more complex flaws in the manufacturing ecosystem. 

To actually achieve circularity, garments need to be easier to recycle: “We assemble garments that are very difficult to take apart,” he said. “The truth about [circularity] is it’s not an opportunity for two times growth without the guilt of production. It’s an opportunity to pause and realize that everything we make is hard to take apart.”

Ideally, Dillinger said, the garments most likely to be disposed of would also be the ones most thoughtfully designed. For example, “A white T-shirt that’s going to get pit stains and get chili dribbled on it,” he said. “That’s the ideal garment,” noting that a 100% undyed cotton T-shirt would be the perfect input into a post-consumer recovery system. 

“But unfortunately, no one’s designing out the polyester thread, no one’s taking out the spandex from the collar, no one’s getting rid of the synthetic labeling,” he said. “All of the material components that manifest as unresolvable trash in that second generation materials stream.”

Dillinger doesn’t see manufacturers moving toward recovery optimization; rather, they’re going about business as usual. “The garments that are best suited for that kind of recovery are the ones that are being least considered for that kind of recovery.”

The excitement around resale opportunities is a distraction from true sustainable goals, he argued, since it places too much of a focus on new revenue streams: “It’s not necessarily excitement about solving major environmental problems.”

Sign up for the Fortune Features email list so you don’t miss our biggest features, exclusive interviews, and investigations.