It takes a whole lot of water to make a pair of jeans. In 2007 and again in 2015, denim giant Levi Strauss set out to quantify just how much water went into making its iconic 501 jeans. The company discovered that each pair of 501's uses around 3,800 gallons of water during its full life cycle—70 percent of which is used for cotton growing and another 9 percent consumed during manufacturing.
This week another storied American denim company announced it will cut its manufacturing usage down to size by bringing a brand new dyeing technology to the industry.
On Tuesday, Wrangler confirmed an agreement to implement a new foam-dyeing process to give its jeans the same classic blue color without the water waste. The company will be the first to use the technology, which it says can eliminate 99 percent of the water typically used in the dyeing process.
Researchers at Texas Tech University developed the new dyeing system thanks to early-stage funding from Wrangler and the Walmart Foundation. Tejidos Royo, a Spanish fabric mill with a reputation for prioritizing environmental performance, will be the first to integrate the process, which it calls Dry Indigo.
“We invested in the development of this innovation, because we believe it can drastically change the denim industry for the better,” Tom Waldron, president of Wrangler, said in a statement. “We’re grateful to have an industry-leading partner in Royo, with whom we are taking this revolutionary step toward more sustainable denim.”
Wrangler will leverage a full line of jeans to showcase the foam-dyed denim in 2019. “We’re excited Wrangler is dedicating an entire line of jeans to this innovation,” Jose Royo, sales director of the Tejidos Royo fabric mill, said in a statement. “Our Dry Indigo process nearly erases the environmental impact of denim dyeing and represents the next generation of denim production.”
The manufacturing upgrade is part of Wrangler’s broader goal to save 5.5 billion liters—or around 1.5 billion gallons—of water by 2020. The company has already recycled 3 billion liters of water over the past 10 years, but it will need to step it up in order to meet its goal—and new innovations like this can help, Waldron said.
“While we have been able to reduce 3 billion liters of water in product finishing during the past 10 years, we know that more needs to be done across the entire supply chain,” he explained in a statement. “Foam technology reduces water consumption and pollution further upstream, helping our fabric suppliers to dramatically minimize the impacts of making denim fabric blue.”
If Wrangler dyed all of its denim with this new process, it would save enough water for 150,000 people to use in their homes for an entire year, the company said. For perspective, that’s roughly equivalent to the entire population of Savannah, Georgia, or Hartford, Connecticut.
Wrangler is also looking to move away from the petroleum-derived synthetic indigo dye used by most denim manufacturers. The company began sourcing natural indigo from a handful of farmers last fall, including the Tennessee-based Stony Creek Colors, and hopes to ramp up natural indigo purchasing in the coming years.
Even further down the supply chain, Wrangler continues to work with cotton farmers on more sustainable agricultural practices. The company introduced a soil health program last year to boost the sustainable cotton supply, engaging farmers from Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, Environmental Leader reported.
The denim icon also plans to power all owned and operated facilities with 100 percent renewable energy by 2025, among other sustainability initiatives.
Wrangler’s parent company, VF Corporation, is no stranger to sustainability either. The apparel giant that also includes labels like Vans, Timberland and the North Face cut carbon emissions by 12 percent from 2009 to 2015 while growing the business—among a number of impressive social and environmental achievements.
The Made for Change strategy, launched at the end of last year, further embedded sustainability into day-to-day operations at VF. “Made for Change was designed as a long-term strategy for the business—not just a sustainability strategy—so it had to create value,” Letitia Webster, global vice president of corporate sustainability for VF, told Conscious Company. “If we want the plan to generate value in the form of revenue, reputation, brand relevancy and growth, it must be embedded in the business.”
As it moves forward with its company-wide goals, Webster said VF will lean on brands with more experience in sustainability, such as Wrangler, the North Face and Timberland, to lead the way. “We’ve been at it for a long time, and we’ve been able to show some wins and highlight some success stories from brands across the company,” Webster told the magazine. “Those bright spots put momentum behind us, and people start to wonder, ‘If that team can do it, why can’t I?’”
Image credits: Wrangler
Mary Mazzoni has reported on sustainability in business for over a decade and now serves as managing editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of brands and organizations on sustainability storytelling. Along with 3p, Mary's recent work can be found in publications like Conscious Company, Salon and Vice's Motherboard. She also works with nonprofits on media projects, including the women's entrepreneurship coaching organization Street Business School. She is an alumna of Temple University in Philadelphia and lives in the city with her partner and two spoiled dogs.