The environmental impact of the clothing industry is large and varied. The most significant factors depend highly on the energy, toxicity and water life cycle of the material in question. In general the largest contributions occur in the material production phase (e.g. agriculture), clothing production phase (factory) and usage phase (washing and drying). These are in the form of energy, water and chemical pollution.
A number of companies are taking steps to produce clothing more responsibly and with a lower impact on the planet. Perhaps best known is the selection of low-impact materials, such as organic cotton, which greatly reduces pesticide use. Other materials that have one or more sustainable characteristics include soy, bamboo, hemp and recycled plastic.
Then there are trends that reduce consumption such as recycled clothing, where scraps, rags and pre-worn items are refashioned into new forms. New designs that are multifunctional, like the Versalette, which can be worn 30 different ways have also come on the scene. The idea here is allowing you to pack lighter on your journey through life, with a few items that can meet a variety of needs.
Among common fabrics, life cycle analysis shows that cotton uses roughly 40 percent less energy than polyester, but cotton growing requires a great deal of water, which is a problem in dry areas. Only about a third of cotton goes into fabric production; the rest consists of seeds, stalks and lint byproducts that can be used to make Viscose (rayon).
Levi Strauss & Co. just made an exciting announcement about changes to its production process that will reduce water usage. Before we get into it, it’s worth taking a minute to talk about water. When talking about water conservation, things get a little complicated. It’s true that all water that is used eventually returns to the global water supply. So what’s the big deal? For one thing, it could return polluted, or it could end up somewhere else. Both of these outcomes could require considerable energy to reverse. It could also be overdrawn so that it’s not there when you need it. Water that was used to grow oranges in Florida, for example, eventually gets returned to the world’s water supply. However, it could be shipped many miles away in the oranges, and end up in a different watershed. That’s why it’s worthwhile to look separately at water usage and water consumption.
This analysis of cotton shows that for woven fabric, water usage is highest in the textile manufacturing phase, which accounts for around 60 percent of usage, while water consumption is highest in the agricultural production phase which accounts for about 70 percent.
The definition of these two terms is important. Water usage refers to all of the water applied, both directly and indirectly, in any given phase of the product’s life. You can think of it as the gross amount of water used. It is important when there is limited capacity. Water consumption, on the other hand, refers to water that leaves the watershed from where it was taken. This would include irrigation water that is taken up by the plant and is either carried off with the harvest or evaporated. Another example is when washing a shirt, all the water used in the wash is considered water used, but only the water remaining in the shirt when its done, which will eventually evaporate, is considered water consumed. Large amounts of water consumption can leave an area dry, as water is transferred elsewhere.
This puts the actions taken recently by Levi Strauss into perspective.The company has developed a new process that will allow it to use 100 percent recycled water in parts of its jeans production process where water usage is very high. The process was piloted by one of the company’s supplier factories in China, where 100,00 pairs of women’s jeans were produced using this process. The switch saved some 12 million liters (3.2 million gallons) of water. The process is shown in the infographic below.
The company has worked with textile industry engineers to develop a standard to be used across the industry. Standards are very important for delineated recommended practices and behaviors in the industry. The North Face recently developed a new standard for responsible down production that it gifted to the Textile Exchange.
There are a variety of standards for industrial water recycling. The highest is zero water discharge, which Gilbert O’Neal, president of the Institute of Textile Technology, doesn’t think Levi’s is achieving here, because that would be too expensive. Still, saving 120 liters of water for each pair of jeans is nothing to sneeze at.
Levi’s championed its Global Effluent Requirements back in 1994 which specifies the water purity level that must be achieved before the water leaves the factory — which, according to Reza Hosseini of the Levi Strauss & Co. sustainability team, is often, “cleaner than when it comes in.”
Now the company is improving on that by taking water that has already been used in the finishing process, and using it again and again, as long as its purity can be maintained.
These steps also build on the Levi’s already established Water<Less process, an earlier modification to the finishing process that came about after the company did a life cycle assessment of its 501 jeans and Dockers original Khakis. That process, which reduced the amount of water used in finishing, saved roughly 699 million liters of water between 2011 and 2013.
Levi’s should be applauded for its continuing pursuit of ever-higher efficiency. It goes without saying that while the company is helping to save the planet by reducing water consumption, it is also saving money for itself and its suppliers.
Images courtesy of Levi Strauss & Co.
RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.
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