BySarah Lozanova

May 11, 2015
Levi's 501

It seems like a company’s job is to convince us to buy lots of stuff and to replace it often. Clothing companies have the added benefit of changing styles motivating some of us to replace our wardrobes each year or two. And yet Levi Strauss & Co. (LS&Co.) doesn’t seem to fit this mold. Its CEO, Chip Bergh even described its brand last year as “the ultimate in slow fashion” in contrast to fast fashion, where clothes become quickly outdated and are discarded.

Bergh captured headlines last year by saying during an interview, “These jeans are maybe a year old and these have yet to see a washing machine.” He recommends giving up auto-pilot behaviors, like washing jeans after each use in warm water.

Now the company is using care tags and social media campaigns to encourage us to wash our jeans less often, and to use cold water and line dry them when we do. All LS&Co. jeans have a care tag that says, “wash less, wash cold, line dry, donate or recycle.” These practices will also extend the life of jeans, another counter-intuitive business decision that will certainly benefit the environment.

A recent lifecycle assessment by LS&Co. systematically explored the environmental impact through all stages of its jeans, from raw materials to disposal. One finding is that Americans use more water and energy to wash their jeans than people in France, the United Kingdom and China, and wash their jeans more frequently.

Levi's 501s.
Levi’s 501s. Image courtesy of Michael Carian.

“The average American washes their jeans after wearing them just twice,” says Michael Kobori, vice president of sustainability for LS&Co. “If we all wash them after 10 wearings instead, we can save as much water as the city of San Jose uses in an entire year.”

As a result, LS&Co. recently launched the #WashLessPledge, encouraging us to change our laundering habits and quantifying the associated impact in water and energy savings.

Because cotton production uses a lot of water, jeans are water-intensive product. A total of 1,000 gallons of water are consumed for the average pair of jeans from production through disposal, with cotton production accounting for 680 gallons and consumers using 230 gallons.

To decrease the water consumed in cotton production, LS&Co. is working with the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a nonprofit organization that brings together a variety of stakeholders to promote sustainable cotton production. Because LS&Co. doesn’t source cotton directly from farmers, this seems like a logical approach. It does however mean that LS&Co. is actually collaborating with competitors to shift global cotton production practices.

Unfortunately jeans are a thirsty product with a big water footprint, mostly due to cotton production, but LS&Co. is taking many actions to help reduce water use, including some that even seem counterproductive from a business standpoint.

Feature image courtesy of Thomas Huang

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.