You probably already know that you could save a lot of water (up to ten gallons!) if you just shortened your shower by two minutes.[i] But did you know that your choice of denim could also have an effect on water consumption? One pair of jeans – starting from its days as a cotton seed to its drop-off at Goodwill – can consume nearly 3,800 liters of water[ii]. However, iconic jeans brand Levi Strauss is working to lower this number with its Water<LessTM process. Launched in 2011, Water<LessTM reduces water consumption in three main ways: cotton production, jeans manufacturing, and consumer care.
Levi Strauss conducted a “lifecycle assessment” of its classic 501® jeans and found that more than two-thirds of a pair of jeans’ lifetime water consumption is due to the fiber[iii], or cotton production process (see Figure 1). Cotton is a water-intensive crop, and climate change and water scarcity are likely to strain the global production of cotton.[iv] Therefore, Levi Strauss helped establish the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) to change how cotton is grown, both decreasing the environmental impact and improving labor standards and economic livelihoods for farmers. Using practices like drip irrigation, BCI farmers utilize up to 18% less water than their peers. In 2015, Levi Strauss sourced 12% of its cotton from BCI.[v]
While an average pair of Levi’s requires 42 liters of water during the finishing process to achieve the proper “worn-in” look, Water<LessTM jeans require far less; some styles only need 1.5 liters, relying heavily on rocks to do the smoothing.[vi] When combined with water recycling and other water consumption savings in the process, this means that making a pair of Water<LessTM jeans uses up to 96% less water than a typical pair of jeans.[vii] Since 2011, Water<LessTM has reduced water consumption in the manufacturing process by more than 1 billion liters[viii] while creating over 75 million products.[ix]
Given the typical lifetime and washing & drying frequency of a pair of jeans, consumers are responsible for the next greatest share of water consumption after cotton production. Hence, Levi’s created product care tags encouraging consumers to “wash less, wash in cold, line dry, and donate when no longer needed.”[x] In addition, the company has famously recommended that customers stick their jeans in the freezer to kill germs in lieu of tossing them in the washing machine. Although the latter idea has been contested[xi], both practices will reduce the consumer’s water footprint.
Customers seem to like the Water<LessTM idea: in 2011, Levi Strauss claimed that its jeans marketed as less water-intensive sold better than their similarly priced but more traditional counterparts.[xii] Levi Strauss is pleased as well and intends to make 80% of Levi’s products using the Water<LessTM process by 2020, up from almost 25% today.[xiii]
Levi Strauss certainly deserves credit for designing an innovative process to conserve water during the jeans manufacturing process, and for encouraging more water conservation both upstream and downstream. However, the fact remains that it is fundamentally a jeans company, and selling as many jeans as possible is in its best interest. If the Water<LessTM products are functionally similar to Levi’s traditional products, do customers really have an incentive to treat them differently? Levi’s may say they want customers to wash their jeans less frequently, but doing so would reduce the wear and tear, thereby lengthening the replacement time and hurting Levi’s sales. In order to better align incentives, perhaps Levi Strauss could spend some time exploring innovations in stain- and smell-resistant denim. Such features could both allow Levi Strauss to charge a premium for their higher quality product and put customers more at ease over skipping their weekly laundry cycle to save some water.
[i] “Take Shorter Showers.” Sustainability@BU, http://www.bu.edu/sustainability/what-you-can-do/ten-sustainable-actions/take-shorter-showers, accessed November 2016.
[ii] Levi Strauss & Co. “The Life Cycle of a Jean: Understanding the environmental impact of a pair of Levi’s® 501® jeans,” http://levistrauss.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2015/03/Full-LCA-Results-Deck-FINAL.pdf, accessed November 2016.
[iii] Levi Strauss & Co. “The Life Cycle of a Jean: Understanding the environmental impact of a pair of Levi’s® 501® jeans,” http://levistrauss.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2015/03/Full-LCA-Results-Deck-FINAL.pdf, accessed November 2016.
[iv] WWF. “Sustainable Agriculture: Cotton,” https://www.worldwildlife.org/industries/cotton, accessed November 2016.
[v] Levi Strauss & Co. “Sustainability: Planet,” http://www.levistrauss.com/sustainability/planet/#water, accessed November 2016.
[vi] Leslie Kaufman, “Stone-Washed Blue Jeans (Minus the Washed),” New York Times, November 1, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/02/science/earth/levi-strauss-tries-to-minimize-water-use.html, accessed November 2016.
[vii] Levi’s. “The lifecycle of Levi’s® jeans,” http://store.levi.com/waterless/index.html, accessed November 2016.
[viii] Levi Strauss & Co. “Sustainability: Products,” http://www.levistrauss.com/sustainability/products/waterless, accessed November 2016.
[ix] Levi’s. “Made of Progress”, http://www.levi.com/US/en_US/madeofprogress#process, accessed November 2016.
[x] Levi Strauss & Co. “Sustainability: Planet,” http://www.levistrauss.com/sustainability/planet/#water, accessed November 2016.
[xi] Sarah Zielinski, “The Myth of the Frozen Jeans,” Smithsonian Magazine, November 7, 2011, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-myth-of-the-frozen-jeans-129092730/?no-ist, accessed November 2016.
[xii] Leslie Kaufman, “Stone-Washed Blue Jeans (Minus the Washed),” New York Times, November 1, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/02/science/earth/levi-strauss-tries-to-minimize-water-use.html, accessed November 2016.
[xiii] Levi Strauss & Co. “Sustainability: Products,” http://www.levistrauss.com/sustainability/products/waterless, accessed November 2016.