After visiting the Ecuadorian coast, I understand better the gravity of water scarcity. During the dry season, high-cost water is trucked in and delivered to homes and businesses. Although it is an inconvenience to people in the middle or upper class, it often means low-income people can’t afford water in their homes.
This helps put the importance of water resource conservation in perspective. Levi Strauss & Co. recently announced that it saved 1 billion liters of water in four years with its Water<Less process alone. “When we first introduced the Water<Less process, a few [suppliers] picked it up,” says Michael Kobori, vice president of sustainability for LS&Co. “As their success grew, other suppliers gained interest in the program and the cost saving involved. It started four years ago, and today 24 percent of all Levi’s products are made with the Water<Less process.”
LS&Co. plans to amp up the program, aiming to use this process when making 80 percent of its products by 2020. Although these numbers are commendable, it is just the tip of the iceberg when considering all LS&Co. is working on, an approach that started with a realistic look at the scope of the issue at hand.
“Almost 1,000 gallons of water are used throughout the life of a pair of jeans,” says Kobori. “This is certainly an impact that we are aware of and that we want to reduce. It is important for the planet and for people all around the world.”
This number was calculated during LS&Co.’s recent Product Lifecycle Assessment (LCA), determining that cotton cultivation comprises 680 gallons, consumer use 230 gallons and garment finishing consuming a mere sliver. This means that most water is consumed not in LS&Co. factories, but on 100 million thirsty cotton fields across the globe and in our washing machines — making LS&Co. water conservation initiatives a bit trickier to implement.
In rising to the challenge of reducing water consumed in cotton production, LS&Co. is working with the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a nonprofit organization that brings together a variety of stakeholders in the cotton supply chain and takes a holistic approach to sustainable cotton production. This means that LS&Co. is collaborating with competitors to shift the global cotton market.
“Our relationship with the BCI is driven by the fact that in our lifecycle assessment, 68 percent of total water use is consumed in growing cotton,” says Kobori. “We really need to focus on cotton production, but we don’t procure the fabric directly. Our relationship is often two or three steps removed.”
The impact of BCI is impressive, with its data showing that farmers in China trained in BCI’s water-saving techniques used 23 percent less water than nearby farms that didn’t use the techniques. LS&Co. is now working with its global suppliers, with a goal of purchasing 75 percent Better Cotton by 2020. For gallons saved, this seems to be a real goldmine.
LS&Co. has also taken bold steps to shape consumer behavior. The company is urging us to change our jean-washing behavior to reduce both water and energy use. LS&Co. CEO Chip Bergh captured headlines last year after saying during an interview, “These jeans are maybe a year old and these have yet to see a washing machine.” For World Water Day, LS&Co. has launched the #WashLessPledge, urging a change in washing behavior and quantifying the impact in water and energy savings.
“The average American washes their jeans after wearing them just twice,” says Kobori. “If we all wash them after 10 wearings instead, we can save as much water as the city of San Jose uses in an entire year.”
Such initiatives might just have the power to shift American culture to help reduce our water consumptive ways. The LCA revealed that Americans use more energy and water to clean their jeans than people in France, the United Kingdom and China. Less frequent laundering and line-drying helps jeans last longer, which seems to fit with the Levi’s brand, which Bergh described last year as “the ultimate in slow fashion” in contrast to fast fashion cycles where clothes are quickly outdated and discarded.
All LS&Co. jeans contain a care tag that states, “wash less, wash cold, line dry, donate or recycle.” With this variety of mediums, consumers are getting the message loud and clear.
“It’s time to rethink auto-pilot behaviors like washing your jeans after every wear because in many cases it’s simply not necessary,” says Bergh.
Although the announcement about 1 billion liters of water saved sounds like a big number, there is much more work to do. Unfortunately jeans are a thirsty product and have a big water footprint, but LS&Co.’s efforts to taper it down are impressive.
Image credit: Emilian Robert Vico, Flickr