Fashion has substantial energy impact — and we don’t mean just socially. Cultivating the cotton and fibers that go into clothes uses massive amounts of water and fertilizer, and then there’s the energy required to manufacture and ship products which consumers then wash and wash and wash.
That's why Levi's, the defining brand in blue jeans, has come up with Water‹Less jeans, hitting stores this month. These green jeans will cost the same, but use 28% less water in the finishing process, which when multiplied by the 1.5 million pairs Levi's expects to sell this spring, adds up to 16 million fewer liters of water consumed.
Levi's assessed the resources used in 501 denim in 2007 and discovered its jeans were, like the human body, mostly made of water. The trick was how to wring the water, and the energy it entails, out of the brand's denim-making process.
Over the lifetime of its jeans, from the cotton fields to consumer to the laundry machine, an average pair of Levi's was found to use up 3,480 liters of water, or"the equivalent of running a garden hose for 106 minutes."
As they couldn’t change the cotton farming industry, or consumer’s washing habits, Levi's brand managers focused on ozone processing to lessen the amount of washing needed to soften the stonewashed jeans before sale.
"It took a different way of thinking, but the results are kind of amazing," comments Carl Chiara, director of brand concepts at Levi's, to TIME.
A typical jean averages three to ten spins in huge washers and dryers to create that soft feel and appearance. By combining multiple wash cycles into a single wet-cycle process and incorporating ozone processing, Levi’s changed the meaning and process of stone-wash.
“What’s different about the Water<Less collection is that we’re still using the same materials and techniques to create finishes for our jeans but we’ve substantially reduced water’s role in the equation,” adds Chiara. “Sometimes, the way to achieve a more sustainable design is to rethink a traditional process and find a way to do it better.”
The Water<Less product line is starting with Levi's menswear, remaking more than a dozen classic Levi’s jeans, from 501s to 514s, and even the iconic Levi’s trucker jacket. Levi's tweeter-in-chief, Gareth Hornberger confirmed that Water<Less womenswear is "coming soon."
Hornberger also commented on Twitter that "we are expecting to save 16 million liters of water in spring 2011 alone... that's 2.6 million toilet flushes or +500k showers" and hinted at a charitable component to come: "+1 bil. people don't have access to clean water. In March we are announcing a HUGE partnership to provide water access through our savings."
Until fashion pioneers figure out the outer-edge of fashion sustainability with clothes that leave behind little or no waste, requiring scrap-free patterns that mesh like puzzles, buying Water<Less jeans makes a good statement for consumers…and is softer for the planet.
Here's more from Chiara on the Water<Less philosophy: