Several years ago, Levi's embarked on a mission to reduce the amount of water used to produce a pair of jeans. When the denim industry expanded, critics began to scrutinize the manufacturing process, eventually levying claims that the dyeing and finishing stage was having a significant impact on water conservation. Levi's took a proactive approach and tackled the problem head on with a research and development initiative that aimed to reduce the amount of water used in production. That initiative resulted in the Water<Less collection, a line of denim products manufactured using up to 96% less water in the finishing process. According to Levi's, since 2011, they have saved 1 billion liters of water! That is an amazing figure, especially when considering that many people don't have access to clean drinking water. With that kind of success it's no surprise that they've expanded the initiative beyond manufacturing.
Educating us on what we can do to reduce water consumption is a major part of the program and Levi's has dedicated a significant portion of their website to just this task. Levi's CEO Chip Bergh's announcement that he didn't wash his jeans was met with many a sarcastic remark and his insistence that we all do the same was met with many a side-eye. It's difficult for most people to accept the idea of not laundering dirty clothing. It's ingrained in us and a part of our first world culture. When our clothes get dirty, we wash them. Period (though I suspect many of us wear our jeans repeatedly before washing. I know I do). But when you look at the numbers, laundering is responsible for 23% of the water used in the lifetime of a pair of jeans*. That's a number that can't be ignored.
We don't consider where the waste water goes when the washing machine drains the dirt and detergent, but it has to go somewhere and that somewhere eventually leads to our drinking water. “It’s time to rethink autopilot behaviors like washing your jeans after every wear because in many cases it’s simply not necessary,” said Chip Bergh, CEO and president of Levi's Strauss & Co. That's especially true for jeans, which actually last longer with less laundering. It's one of the best features about owning a pair of jeans. And let's think about this, we love to hold companies accountable when we discover questionable business practices. However, it's important for us as consumers to hold ourselves accountable as well. It's our world. We all have to take part in caring for it.
Last, but not least, the company is heading straight to inception. The best, most durable jeans, are made of cotton. Levi's is finding success working with cotton growers around the world in helping them find ways to reduce the water used to grow crops.
In just a few short years, the Water>Less Process has expanded from a small product line to a soup to nuts strategy that hits most of the stages of the product lifecycle. Levi's didn't specify whether they were sharing their water conservation methods with other brands, but working with cotton growers and educating consumers already has an impact beyond their brand. It will probably be difficult for smaller denim brands, who don't have R&D departments to adopt water saving techniques, but hopefully Levi's success will convince larger brands to develop their own initiatives.
If you're still stuck on the idea of not washing your jeans, then let's think about it for a moment. It didn't take long to get used to the idea of dry shampoo, it should take even less time to embrace dirty jeans.
*from Levi's Product Lifecycle Assessment (LCA)