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Levi's Latest Bid for a Greener Pair of Jeans

You learn something every day in this business. During a recent visit to the San Francisco headquarters of Levi Strauss & Co., the $4 billion-a-year clothing company best known for its Levi's jeans, I was talking with Michael Kobori, the company's director of sustainability, about the company's effort to measure the carbon and water footprints of its products, when he told me this:

"Denim aficionados don't wash their jeans."

Now, I've been wearing jeans since my teen years in the 1960s. Working out of a home office, I probably wear jeans, oh, 320 out of 365 days a year. But this came as news to me.

Kobori explained that true jeans lovers buy a tight pair of unwashed jeans, wear them for a while, and very occasionally -- maybe once or twice a year -- get in the bathtub wearing the jeans, let the water soak into them, then hang them to dry. That way, they mold to your body. What's more, you save water, detergent, energy and your jeans last longer by avoiding the wear and tear of wash and dry cycles.

Who knew?

Kobori and I got onto the subject of fabric care because we were talking about Levi Strauss's environmental impact. Back in 2007, the company did a life cycle assessment (LCA) of a pair of 501 jeans and a pair of Docker's khakis. (Dockers is owned by Levi Strauss.) The company's experts found that, by far, the biggest impact of the product was in the cotton grown to make the jeans -- growing cotton requires lots of water and pesticides -- and in the washing and drying of jeans once they get into the hands of the consumer.

"Fifty-eight percent of all energy consumed during the life cycle of a pair of jeans comes during the time a consumer washes and dries them at home," Kobori wrote in the Huffington Post.

He told me: "If consumer use and cotton are the two biggest impacts, that's what we need to focus on."

One result was new care tags on the jeans, seen above and at right. So was a promotional deal with Walmart and Procter & Gamble, in which Levi's were sold alongside P&G's Tide cold water. "Sales for both the products spiked," Kobori said. The company also encourages people to use their dryers less. It ran a competition called the Care to Air Design Challenge offering a $10,000 prize to the person who came up with the most creative way to air dry their clothes and gave away clothes pins in its stores.

Dealing with cotton was tougher. Levi Strauss doesn't grow cotton, or spin it into yarn, or even make fabric. Buying organic cotton is an obvious solution, but not a practical one, Kobori says. It costs 50 percent more than conventional cotton, and supplies are limited; nor do organic standards address water usage.

Instead, Levi Strauss joined with other textile firms and retailers in a coalition called the Better Cotton Initiative that seeks to reduce the environmental impacts of cotton and better support farmers. The initiative is working in India and Pakistan, two major cotton producers. "Better cotton does not carry the same price premium that organic or fair trade does," Kobori said.

Levi Strauss is cleaning up its own operations as well. This week at the Business for Social Responsibility conference in New York, the company announced a series of water-saving initiatives including a new product line called Water < Less Jeans, which uses between 28 and 96 percent less water than conventional jeans. (The average pair of jeans undergoes three to 10 washing cycles in large machines, using 42 liters of water in the finishing process, the company says.) You can read more about the Water < Less jeans collection here in this company blog post and in this story from's website.

Levi Strauss, which created blue jeans in the 1870s, has been a leader in corporate responsibility. The company integrated its factories in the south during the 1950s, when that was a courageous thing to do, and it adopted a code of conduct for its suppliers in 1991, long before most other apparel companies.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user isyamuddin.

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