Why Levi Strauss Leads the Way on Sustainable Jeans

The name Levi Strauss & Co. (LS&Co.) can bring to mind your favorite jeans, comfort and happy times. However, if you’ve been paying attention to the news about the garment industry lately, you may also have valid concerns about the environmental and social impact of your beloved jeans. It turns out, in the case of your Levi’s®, you can feel better than you might have expected. In a fashion world under fire for the environmental and human costs involved in clothing us all, LS&Co. have a strong commitment to leadership in sustainability and environmental protection, and continue to strive for improvement.

Even better, while LS&Co. are leading innovators, they are not alone. The company is a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a group of leading multinational brands and manufacturers focused on developing and sharing sustainable practices. Membership represents around 40% of the global apparel and footwear industry (by turnover), plus NGOs, academic institutions and government agencies.

LS&Co.’s modern sustainability leadership role began in 1991, as the first multinational apparel company to establish a workplace code of conduct, spelling out labor, health, safety and environmental requirements for their suppliers. Two decades later, the initiative has grown to include the Worker Well-Being program, now implemented in 12 countries, with a 2020 goal to have 80% of product supplied by participating companies. The program goes beyond working conditions to support workers’ financial empowerment, health and family well-being and includes participation in the global HERproject. Results have been impressive, with some health programs providing a 4:1 return on investment, providing incentive for the whole industry to follow.

On the environmental side, I was impressed by LS&Co.’s multiple programs focused on protecting the planet, from their own initiatives to partnerships addressing the global environmental challenges of fiber production.

The LS&Co. Water<Less® innovation program focuses on reducing water used in the finishing process. Development of Water<Less® included a life cycle impact assessment of the iconic Levi’s® 501 jeans, done in 2007 and again in 2015. While establishing a baseline they learned a pair of Levi’s® 501’s uses 3,781 litres of water in its full lifecycle from cotton field, to your closet and laundry, and finally recycling.

Have you ever wondered how often people wash their jeans? You can find out here, and then start following LS&Co. advice to do your bit by washing your jeans less often. Recognizing that water supply is one of the planet’s greatest challenges, the company made industry headlines in 2016 by making their proprietary Water<Less® water reduction standards and tools open source and publicly available to other denim companies worldwide.

A sobering statistic from the life cycle impact assessment is that 68% of the water consumption of a pair of jeans comes from cotton cultivation. While the partnership with BCI, the Better Cotton Initiative, is addressing decreasing the impact, cotton is inescapably a thirsty crop. If we are to continue enjoying our lovely soft and strong cotton clothes, and protect the earth, something drastic has to happen.

And it will. In May 2017, LS&Co. joined 12 other companies (ASOS, Eileen Fisher, Greenfibres, H&M, IKEA, Kering, Lindex, M&S, Nike, Sainsbury’s, F&F, Tesco and Woolworths Holdings) pledging 100% use of Sustainable Cotton by 2025. This means improved growing practices and the need to use a lot more post-consumer waste cotton in products. However, using current recycling technology that is impossible, as the fibers are so degraded in the process only a small amount can be used for new clothing.

LS&Co. are up to the challenge. A year earlier they announced a partnership with Evrnu™ and creation of the first prototype of a pair of Levi’s®501 jeans made out of 100% post-consumer, recycled cotton waste. Evrnu™ is a Seattle-based tech start-up with a new patent-pending recycling technology that converts post-consumer cotton clothing waste into a new cotton-like fibre with high quality and strength.

It’s early days, but seeing the progress being made, I believe the 2025 Sustainable Cotton goal is achievable and I’ll get to keep wearing my jeans and feel good about the planet.

Pam BryanPam Bryan is the Executive Director of Parvati Magazine, and a business professional living in Edmonton, Canada. She volunteers with Parvati.org and is on the Board of Directors for the Tour of Alberta professional cycling race. In her spare time she is learning how to container garden on her balcony, and hopes for a bumper crop of carrots this year.