For Earth Day, Levi Strauss & Co. wants consumers to pledge to wash less

An American denim pioneer is working to scrub consumers’ perceptions about their clothes, in an attempt to shed light on the impact that washing just one pair of jeans has on the environment.

A recent study  by Levi Strauss & Co. found that 1,000 gallons (3,800 liters) of water are used over the lifetime of a pair of jeans, with regular care contributing 37 percent of the roughly 74 pounds of carbon dioxide emitted during the jeans’ use.

The company has launched a month-long campaign -- World Water Day through Earth Day -- to promote its campaign Water<Less™ , a process to reduce the water used in “garment finishing” by up to 96 percent. The move has helped the company save millions of gallons (1 billion liters) of water since 2011.

In celebration of international Earth Day on April 22, the company is urging consumers to come clean and confront their impact on world water consumption. The company wants consumers to take an online quiz to determine their water use and then pledge through social media to wash their jeans less often.

“I think it’s hard to change people’s behavior, but what we’ve seen from the time we started the campaign is that it makes consumers think a little more carefully about ‘what is my impact?’” said Michael Kobori, the vice president of sustainability for the clothing company. “It’s presented in a way that really encourages people to think about their personal impact by changing something as simple as how frequently they wash their jeans. It’s a nice message and it’s a little fun.”

Kobori told that the average person washes their jeans after wearing them twice. He said that if consumers washed their jeans after “every 10 wearings,” they would cut down their water consumption by 80 percent.

He said there is also a psychological benefit to taking the quiz: sometimes it feels helpful to see one’s impact in plain print. This writer discovered he saves 64 gallons (245 liters) of water over the course of a year. For those who might use considerably more water, Kobori suggested that the quiz can serve as a “friendly wakeup call.”

So, why exactly put Levi’s corporate thrust behind this initiative? Kobori said it rests in the company’s DNA.

“The company has always had a history of what we call ‘sustainability’ today, of taking care of the environment,” he said. “2007 was really one of the turning points for us, when we published the initial study. After we saw the data from the assessment, we realized how potent this information could be for the consumer.”

In the study, about 68 percent of a pair of jeans’ water consumption comes from cotton cultivation in the production stage. Consumer water use accounts for 23 percent. The data on cotton cultivation comes from the company’s analysis of suppliers in the United States,as well as Australia, Brazil, China, India, and Pakistan. Kobori added that it’s important to look at the way jeans are produced and find the most efficient ways to create products that use less water.

“We always just assumed that we needed to look at what our manufacturing suppliers are doing, and the data just further substantiated the importance of instituting better cotton initiatives for farmers around the world,” Kobori said. “From there you can really focus on the consumer and bring the focus down from the manufacturing to the personal.”

While the campaign has legs through social media, it is hard to assess exactly how it has impacted consumers. Kobori said that there is no evidence to see whether the company’s initiatives have really impacted behavior, and added that it is “pretty challenging” to come up with some hard figure of how much washing habits may or may not have changed. He did say that Levi’s is “exploring how we can set something up to have data on this.”

Moving forward, the company hopes that its sustainability efforts can expand beyond jeans. By 2020, Levi’s hopes that 80 percent of its products will utilize the Water<Less technique, which includes decreasing wash cycles for garments and using ozone gas instead of water in washing machines in the production process that gives Levi’s jeans their iconic, bleached look.

So, 10 years down the line, where does Kobori envision the campaign heading?

“We want consumers to recognize that we are the sustainability leaders in the retail industry, we do the right thing,” he said. “We’ve been around as a company for 160 years – people trust us, and we want to be around for another 160 years. Sustainability, innovation, and longevity all go hand in hand.”