Sixteen years of work as a fashion designer in New York was enough for Paul Dillinger. He quit and took a job teaching design at his alma mater, Washington University in St Louis. “I had become somewhat disillusioned – really challenged morally or ethically – by the industry,” he says.
Then a friend recruited Dillinger to work for Levi Strauss & Co Today, he’s leading a cutting-edge initiative to take sustainable design to new heights at the 160-year-old company: a Dockers line of clothes called Wellthread. The line brings together the best practices in materials sourcing and garment manufacturing, providing social and economic benefits to factory workers in Bangladesh and delivering durable khakis, jackets and T-shirts to consumers.
Dillinger wants to weave responsibility into every stage of design, manufacturing and usage, from the cotton fields to the factories to the market and beyond.
“I saw all these different nodes of activity in the company that were tackling different problems,” Dillinger said, when we met this week at Levi’s Eureka Innovation Lab, a research and development unit near the company’s headquarters in San Francisco. “The opportunity, to me, was to string all of these ideas together and create a systems approach to change.”
Michael Kobori, who is vice-president of social and environmental sustainability at Levi Strauss, describes the Wellthread collection as “the second generation of sustainable product because it is focused on both the environmental and social aspects of sustainability”.
There’s just one catch, and it’s a big one: for now, at least, there are no plans to sell Wellthread at retail outlets in the US when the collection is released next year. In a move that appears to reflect uncertainty about whether sustainability can be effectively marketed to US consumers, the line will be sold online and in stores in Europe.
In a business-case study of Wellthread, the company explains:
So far, all these changes are being implemented at a relatively small scale to explore the results in terms of social and business value. Wellthread will make its debut in the spring, and the company is exploring how future Dockers and Levi’s collections can capitalize on the process.
“By having this little lab to test and substantiate ideas at small-risk scale, we’re then able to deploy these new best practices at large scale,” Dillinger says.
What’s clear, nevertheless, is the seriousness of thought that has gone into Wellthread. It aims to be the antithesis of fast, cheap throwaway fashion.
“The fashion cycle that seeks to reinvent itself every six months? It doesn’t ask, ‘How do we improve the lives of the people we touch?’” Dillinger told me.
On the contrary, he said, as a New York designer for American Eagle Outfitters, Calvin Klein and DKNY, he saw brands join a race to the bottom to deliver cheap clothes in ever-changing styles. That forced brands to compromise on the quality of their products and to squeeze costs out of their supply chain at workers’ expense.
Dillinger, who is 41, has devoted his life to design. “I saw a fashion show on Donahue when I was 12 and I said, that’s what I want to be,” he said. He got a sewing machine for his 16th birthday and still keeps one on his dining table at home.
When he arrived at Levi Strauss, he found a company with a history that demonstrated a belief in durability – the company secured the first patent for the riveted pockets that help blue jeans last longer – and a commitment to an ethical supply chain. Levi Strauss was one of the first companies to set labor, health and safety standards for its global suppliers.
As senior director of color, concept and design for Dockers, Dillinger devised the plan for Wellthread. Last year, he became the first fashion designer to be awarded a First Movers fellowship at the Aspen Institute, where corporate executives develop ways to integrate social and business value.
He designed Wellthread to last for years, using a long-staple yarn grown in Pakistan (some of it under the auspices of the Better Cotton Initiative) that he expects will hold up through numerous washings and, eventually, recycling. Buttonholes and pockets are reinforced to make them more durable.
The manufacturing process will use roughly 30% less water and energy than conventional methods. Factory managers from a trusted Bangladesh suppler were flown to San Francisco to participate in design decisions. “Once we gave them permission to make suggestions, they were abundant,” Dillinger said. Too often, he said, designers simply dictate specs, by email, to the factory floor.
Meanwhile, Levi Strauss – working with partners including its foundation, BSR and Ceres – also has been developing a program to improve the finances and wellbeing of workers in its supply chain. The Bangladesh factory that makes the Wellthreads line is participating in the program.
These clothes, of course, don’t come cheap. Pants cost $140, T-shirts $50 and jackets $250. And Levi Strauss faces a big challenge of finding ways to market Wellthread to mainstream consumers so that the principles involved in its design can be deployed throughout the company.
Beyond that, the company must figure out to reconcile a commitment to long-lasting clothes with a desire to grow revenue by selling more stuff. Levi Strauss is a private company, albeit a big one, with $4.6bn in revenues in 2012. “We want to think about what thoughtful, intentional, restrained growth would look like,” Dillinger said.
Yet Dillinger also wants his ideas to spread and to change the very terms of the conversation about fashion. As he once put it: “Maybe one day, discussions of the celebrities’ red carpet choices will be go beyond daring color and revealing neckline to include the use of sustainable fibers and natural dyes. If you’re going to dream, dream big, right?”
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