Clothing manufacturing has a big water footprint, and has been notorious for contributing to water pollution. According to China Water Risk, 17 to 20 percent of water pollution in China comes from the textile industry.
However, Levi-Strauss & Co. launched a new way of making jeans with recycled water, not only reducing the amount of water a factory uses but also ensuring that water leaving the plant will meet cleanliness standards. The recycled water system was introduced at a supplier factory in China, which made 100,000 pairs of jeans with 100 percent recycled water.
Water is used to finish the jeans, in industrial washing machines that can hold as many as 100 pairs of pants. "Depending on the look that we want to achieve with denim, the jeans can be washed any number of times," said Michael Kobori, Vice-President of Sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co. The washes give the jeans a specific color and texture, depending on how long they're washed. "Every different look has literally a different recipe."
As you can see from the infographic above, the waste water is treated in a two-step system. First, the water is treated to meet local water standards and Levi's global effluent standards. Next, some of the water will be treated by a micro-filtration system for re-use in the manufacturing process.
Now, it's not a perfectly closed-loop system, because water may be discharged after the first or second stage of treatment. Kobori said that all water discharged is treated in one way or the other at the site. "Not all of the water goes through the recycle treatment," he said. "But then once it goes through the recycle treatment, it is actually much purer."
Levi's reports they saved 12 million liters of water with the recycled water system in one season. That's enough to fill 5 Olympic-sized swimming pools, and there's a lot of room for more water savings when the system is expanded. The recycled water system isn't used to make all of Levi's garments at this facility, and Levi's also shares the facility with other brands.
"We anticipate that is definitely going to grow in the future," said Kobori. "We're working with two other factories one of them in Latin America, and the other in South Asia, to install the same kind of recycle water process. We really want to continue to scale it up to as many of our suppliers as we can."
To encourage adoption of the technology, Levi's created a new Water Recycling/Reuse Standard for suppliers based on recommendations from the World Health Organization and Environmental Protection Agency. "The technology is available," said Kobori. "Micro filtration exists and if you ask suppliers to install it they will, but what doesn't exist is this standard by which to measure how well their treatment system is working."
Levi's is also working to reduce water usage at other steps in the lifecycle of a pair of pants, including working with The Better Cotton Initiative and creating a "Care Tag for Our Planet." They encourage owners to wash their garments in cold water and line dry, which not only saves energy and water but also helps the jeans last longer.
"We're really thrilled to be able to establish this water recycling standard," said Kobori. "Water is a very precious resource, and by recycling it, more will be available for the environment and for communities."