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Levi’s Ditches Experience on Path Towards Water Savings

Words by Leon Kaye

Levi’s is not shy about sharing the successes it has had on the sustainability and corporate social responsibility front.  And perhaps they do not need to be.  The company has had a long history of blending profits and progress.  Fifty years ago, when the company purchased a factory in Blackstone, Virginia, its owners, the Haas family, demanded its workforce no longer be segregated by race.  To that end the Haas name has been a part of numerous charitable foundations.  And on the sustainability and corporate social responsibility fronts, Levi’s has led in one way with its Water<Less campaign.  It’s ranked highly in the eyes of GoodGuide and has pushed innovation with last year’s contest to reinvent the clothesline and grants to provide clean water worldwide.

At PSFK’s San Francisco conference, Erik Joule, Levi’s senior vice president of design and licensing, explained his path and that of the company towards ramping up water efficiency throughout its operations.  As is the case with many companies looking for greater resource efficiency throughout their supply chain, Joule and Levi’s realized that so much of what they did was out of habit and just doing the same thing over and over again.

“Experience,” Joule told the audience, “is the foe of innovation.”
As is the case with most textiles, the manufacture of a pair of blue jeans is a water intensive process.  The journey starts with growing cotton, a crop that demands vast sums of water; next, the actual manufacture of a pair of jeans, which takes anywhere from 40 to 50 gallons; and finally, after its purchase, a pair of jeans will require even more water.  Therefore, Joule does not wash his jeans (“washing ruins them,” he told the audience).  Tackling water consumption at the source, however, will take a while as moving towards more sustainably-grown cotton requires a massive shift in the supply chain.

But what Levi’s and Joule can control, however, is water use during the manufacturing phase.  And that is where experience, as Joule told the PSFK crowd, can be a hindrance.  When evaluating how a company and its employees can tackle a new process, Joule reminded the audience that sometimes it’s best to pretend you know nothing.  Take the stone-washing of jeans:  most companies throw the jeans in a vat of stones and water to get that weathered effect.  But Joule and his team found that if you eliminate water from the process, you gain the same effect.  Additional water efficiency measures revealed themselves through the finishing process.  The result?  Levi’s used to require about 45 liters (12 gallons) of water to make a pair of jeans.

Now Levi’s uses 1.5 liters, or about 0.4 gallons, to make most of its jeans--and those 60 million pairs of jeans have been finished at a savings of 156 million liters (41.2 million gallons) of water.

Steps like those taken by Levi’s are important.  As Joule reiterated, only one percent of the world’s water is drinkable.  Only so much of it can be salvaged and recycled.  And so the best water stewardship program is one that avoids water excessive water usage in the first place.


Leon Kaye is a consultant, writer, and editor of GreenGoPost.com and also contributes to The Guardian Sustainable Business; you can follow him on Twitter.  He lives in Silicon Valley.

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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