Levi’s wants you to help lower the impact of jeans

Levi's jeans
CC BY 2.0 Maegan Tintari

Today, Levi’s released a new Life Cycle Assessment for their jeans as part of an effort to promote more sustainable water usage. The report comes just ahead of World Water Day, which is March 22.

A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a useful tool that looks at the different environmental impacts of a product. It follows the process from the very beginning where the raw materials are grown, mined or synthesized, through manufacturing and consumer use, to disposal or recycling.

Levi’s has taken a number of steps to reduce its water footprint throughout the production chain, including working with the Better Cotton Initiative and introducing water saving and recycling processes to their manufacturing facilities. According to Stephen Leahy’s “Your Water Footprint,” it takes 7,600 liters of water to grow the cotton and manufacture a typical pair of jeans. According to Levi’s Life Cycle Assessment, a pair of Levi’s 501 jeans uses 2,835 liters of water for the same steps. That’s a pretty dramatic savings.

Consumer care, or how we wash and dry our clothes, also adds considerably to the cradle to grave water consumption of a pair of jeans. On average, it adds another 860 liters according to the Levi’s report—or about 23 percent of the total water used over the lifetime of a pair of jeans. Growing the cotton amounts to about 68 percent of water consumption.

An urban legend that you will often encounter when discussing the environmental impact of clothing is that consumer care is the biggest problem. “When you talk to apparel companies, what they will tell you is that the biggest impact of apparel on the environment is consumer care,” said Linda Greer, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Fund and the director of their Clean by Design program.

Greer explained this myth traces back to two early studies that assumed that consumers wash all their clothes once a week. That doesn’t mean you do a load of laundry once a week, but that you actually wash, dry and iron every single item you own every week. Using that as a formula, of course you would come up with a staggering impact. Fortunately, no one actually cares for their clothes like that.

The Levi’s report does a better job of looking at the real impact of consumer care, by parsing the different impacts of different approaches to care. Not surprisingly, washing your jeans after one wear will have a much higher impact than washing after several uses. Using cold water and line drying will also reduce the environmental impact of washing.

Their report also finds some interesting regional differences. In the U.S., people tend to wear their jeans twice before washing them. In France and the U.K., people tend to wear them slightly more, averaging 2.5 wears. In China, people tend to wear their jeans four times before washing.

impact of washing jeans© Levi's

But Levi’s wants to promote the idea that you can wear your denim ten times or more (as you can see in the chart above), and their CEO has gotten a lot of press for telling us to never wash our jeans.

To help people better understand the impact of their washing choices, they’ve also created a quiz that can tell you how your laundry stacks up.

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