After passing the one billion liter mark for water saved since it instituted its Water<Less finishing process in 2011, Levi Strauss & Co. is upping the ante for its own sustainability practices and those of its consumers and cotton suppliers.
Levi’s is using Water<Less for about one quarter of its products, but by expanding the program in bottoms and moving it into tops and other categories, has set a goal of employing it for 80 percent of its products by 2020.
Additionally, as a member of the Better Cotton Initiative, it’s working to train farmers to optimize water use in growing cotton. Levi’s uses BCI cotton for about 6 percent of its production, a number it wants to lift to 75 percent by 2020.
Citing BCI data, Levi’s noted that cotton farmers in China using BCI protocol consumed 23 percent less water than those not using BCI techniques in 2013.
Levi’s estimated that a typical pair of jeans uses nearly 3,800 liters of water through its life, beginning with the growing of cotton and ending with repeated washings by consumers.
Of the total amount, the vast majority — 68 percent — can be attributed to cotton cultivation, 23 percent to consumer use and the remaining 9 percent to jeans production.
Levi’s has become something of a cheerleader for more responsible stewardship of jeans by consumers. Chip Bergh, president and chief executive officer of the company, received considerable, while not always flattering, exposure last May when he informed an audience at Fortune’s Brainstorm Green Conference that the jeans he was wearing, while subjected to occasional spot- and hand-washes, “have yet to see a washing machine.”
While consumer care accounts for a significant share of water consumption, it exerts a greater impact on the climate and energy usage. Levi’s estimated that, of the 33.4 kilograms of carbon dioxide emitted during the life of a pair of jeans, 37 percent is a result of the manner in which consumers care for their jeans.
The 23 percent of water consumption attached to consumer care of jeans, as well as the energy number, could easily be reduced if consumers washed a pair of jeans after 10 wearings, as opposed to the average of two wearings before washing in the U.S., just under three in the U.K. and France and about four in China, according to the Lifecycle Assessment study conducted by Levi’s, a follow-up to its 2007 study.
Shifting to a one-wash-per-10-wearings ratio from current levels would yield significant results, according to the Levi’s estimates. In the U.S., water consumption related to jeans would be cut by 77 percent, enough to meet the annual water needs of 1.3 million people. In the U.K. and France, the reduction would be 75 percent, equivalent to the annual water consumption of 429,000 people in those markets, and in China 61 percent, enough for 20.4 million people.
“It’s time to rethink autopilot behaviors like washing your jeans after every wear because in many cases it’s simply not necessary,” Bergh said. “Our LCA findings have pushed us as a company to rethink how we make our jeans.”
Of the one billion liters in savings, approximately 30 million liters were of fresh water saved through reuse or recycling. That’s critical, in Levi’s view, as it estimates that about 1.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water and, by 2025, two out of three people on the planet will live in water-stressed areas.
Michael Kobori, vice president of social and environmental responsibility at Levi’s, estimated that the one billion liters in water savings is equivalent to the water consumed in 165 million toilet flushes or 10.56 million ten-minute showers.
To drive the message home to consumers, Levi’s created the “Are You Ready to Come Clean?” quiz, available on its Web site, which allows customers to benchmark their own water consumption, and then take a Wash Less Pledge, setting them on a course to wash their jeans less, “or not at all,” between World Water Day on Sunday and Earth Day on April 22.