Levi's CEO: Why Your Jeans Should Never See the Inside of a Washing Machine

In a recent public talk about Levi Strauss & Co.’s commitment to sustainability, I shocked the crowd by admitting that the Levi’s jeans I was wearing that day “hadn’t seen the inside of a washing machine” – and the jeans were more than a year old. The headline became “Levi’s CEO says ‘Never Wash Your Jeans,’” (which, for the record, is not exactly what I said…but it made a great headline). The news created a hot debate and immediately went viral, receiving media coverage from outlets around the world. Now, everywhere I go, the first thing people say to me is “oh, you’re the guy who never washes his jeans!”

How to take care of your very best denim has been a subject of debate for decades, particularly amongst denim aficionados. My point at the conference, which by the way was all about sustainability, was to challenge the mindset that we need to throw everything into the washing machine after one or two wearings. I made this provocative statement because I believe strongly in what our brands stand for: quality, durability and lasting products made sustainably. I also said it because I believe we don’t need to wash jeans as often as most people think we do. (Now, to be fair, these were also my very best pair of Levi’s, which I normally wear to the office – not for playing soccer in the park with my daughter!)

One of the things that attracted me to the big job at LS&Co. was the company’s longstanding commitment to doing the right thing and reputation for making clothing responsibly. I was struck from my first interview that this is a company that’s always chosen the harder right over the easier wrong. And I’m inspired each day to be part of shaping its future.

We also try to be “fact-based” in everything we do. So, back in 2007, our global VP of Sustainability, Michael Kobori, and a team of internal and external experts, conducted an extensive “lifecycle assessment” of a pair of jeans to understand the carbon footprint of one pair of jeans and just how much water and energy a pair of jeans “consumes” in its lifetime, from “cradle” (growing the cotton) to “grave” (recycling, reuse, or worst case, to a landfill).

The results were compelling and highlighted big opportunities to make a difference in water consumption and on the planet. We learned that an average pair of jeans consumes roughly 3,500 liters of water – and that is after only two years of use, washing the jeans once a week. Nearly half of the total water consumption, or 1,600 liters, is the consumer throwing the jeans in the washing machine. That’s equivalent to 6,700 glasses of drinking water!

Nothing focuses the mind like data and a clear understanding of the facts. We first went after what was within our direct control: the water used in producing the jeans. Surprisingly, this is only about 4% of the total water consumed by a pair of jeans during its life. In 2011, we introduced a line of product called Levi’s Water<Less, which significantly reduces the amount of water used in making and finishing the product – in some instances by up to 96%. Since Levi’s Water<Less launched in 2011, we have saved the planet 770 million liters of water – more than all of the drinking water the City of New York consumes in a month!

But still, Levi’s Water<Less only impacts the 4% of water consumption in our direct control. Next, we asked ourselves how could we impact the second largest water consumer – the actual growing of the cotton – which consumes about 48% of the water a pair of jeans will consume? Could we take water out of the growing process? The solution was the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). Together with a range of other like-minded brands and organizations—from IKEA and Marks & Spencer to the World Wildlife Fund—BCI is working to promote sustainable cotton farming, which uses less water. And it is making a difference.

Finally, we knew that 46% of water consumed happens after the consumer gets the jeans home, and starts washing them. To address this, and give consumers guidance on what they could do to reduce their carbon footprint, we created the “Care Tag for the Planet.” This encourages consumers to be mindful when caring for their Levi’s jeans by washing them less often, using cold water and line drying them.

My challenge at the conference only reiterated what denim aficionados have been saying for years: don’t wash your jeans, or significantly reduce your frequency of washing. Or, you can do what I do, and simply spot clean your jeans if they aren’t a total mess. And, when my jeans really need a wash, I do it the old fashioned way: I hand-wash them and hang-dry them. Ask my wife – I really do!

So, while most CEOs wouldn’t show up to an interview in jeans—let alone unwashed jeans—now you know why I did: to provoke everyone to think hard about their laundry habits, especially with their jeans. Imagine the global impact we could make if everyone who wears jeans significantly reduced the number of times their jeans go in to the washing machine? Not only will the planet be better off, but so will your denim!

I’d love to hear a) what small steps you or your company are doing to encourage big leaps in sustainability or b) other areas where you think our company can make a difference. Let me know in the comments.

This article first appeared on Bergh's LinkedIn page. Please leave your suggestions for him there. 


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