Levi’s on the risks of the circular economy

“[The fashion industry] is 60% larger than it needs to be relative to the actual quantity of demand,” says Paul Dillinger, Head of Global Product Innovation at Levi’s, on the latest episode of the Innovators podcast by the Current Global.

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He is referring to the fact six out of 10 garments produced every year are being discarded to landfill or incinerated within the first year of their production. The result is that those working in this world need to either think about how you can eliminate overproduction, or instead build new business models around only making and selling the four that are actually wanted, he explains, even if it affects business growth.

An alternative response to that concept is the so-called “circular economy”, whereby items are not discarded but put back into the system, which to overly simplify matters, enables businesses to continue with growth while aiming for lesser impact. But Dillinger believes such moves are merely providing brands with a guilt-free alternative to keep overproducing at a point when the technology for a truly circular system isn’t yet scalable. He instead refers to the idea of credible “circular industrial ecologies”, which are much more complex to operate and achieve.

“One of them is a corporate compliance officer selling a new shiny penny to a board of directors in the C-suite, and the other one is a studious and scientific approach to really tackling a real challenge,” he explains.

At Levi’s, Dillinger is otherwise looking at key areas like reducing the brand’s use of water. “I think people’s right to drink fresh water should be prioritized above a company’s right to access fresh water for production,” he explains.

In this conversation, hosted in front of a live audience at the Current Global’s Innovation Mansion at SXSW 2019, he explains what that looks like through the  innovative work he’s been doing with hemp. He also gets technical with host Rachel Arthur about the many ways in which Levi’s is working to make its supply chain responsible in one of the most complex industries in the world.

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Catch up with all of our episodes of the Innovators podcast by the Current Global here. The series is a weekly conversation with visionaries, executives and entrepreneurs. It’s backed by the Current Global, a consultancy transforming how consumer retail brands intersect with technology. We deliver innovative integrations and experiences, powered by a network of top technologies and startups. Get in touch to learn more.