Levi Strauss – Taking the Water Out of Jeans

Over 150 years ago, Levi's invented jeans. Today, Levi's must reinvent the way they make their iconic products to survive 150 more years.

From the cotton field to the department store, a single pair of jeans requires nearly 10,000 liters of water in the production process1. That’s enough water to hose your lawn for 9 hours straight, or to flush your toilet 1,600 times. To make just 250 pairs of jeans, you’d need the same amount of water that fits in an Olympic size swimming pool.

Before they’re tried on for the first time, a new pair of jeans has already been washed for up to 6 hours straight2. Denim manufacturers do this, along with a variety of other water-intensive techniques, to treat denim to achieve the perfect look and feel. Also contributing to denim’s water usage is the water-intensive nature of cotton – the main ingredient for denim. These 10,000 liters do not even account for each time a pair of jeans is washed after purchase.

Despite its seeming abundance, water is increasingly seen as a resource that will become more and more scarce as a function of climate change. In fact, by 2030, demand for water is projected to outstrip supply by up to 40%3. Given the water’s status as a critical input for jeans production, this represents an enormous threat to the business. An unfavorable move in either the cost or availability of water would severely impact Levi’s business throughout the supply chain.

Leading the Charge

As the world’s largest denim company, Levi’s is in the unique position to lead the denim industry towards a more sustainable future. Levi’s has already taken strides to reduce water usage, a move that certainly scores points with the environmentally-conscious residents of San Francisco, the location of Levi’s HQ.

Beyond simply good press, the steps Levi’s has taken to date will help set the company up to succeed as the physical manifestations of climate change become increasingly pronounced. They created the Water<LessTM finish process, reducing the amount of water used by up to 96%4. They’ve also standardized the process for water recycling within the industry. Together, these initiatives have saved over 1 billion liters of water. Levi’s has doubled down on this commitment by sharing the Water<Less technique with competitors to broaden the initiative5.

Levi’s has also used its scale to drive sustainability through other members of the supply chain. Through the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), Levi’s aims to change the way cotton is grown by decreasing the environmental impact6. This initiative has resulted in an 18% decrease in water used during cotton production.

Levi’s has also encouraged consumers to pitch in. Levi’s CEO, Chip Bergh, famously revealed that he had not washed his jeans in over a year. Instead, he spot-treats stains, and occasionally puts his jeans in the freezer overnight to kill bacteria. In addition to promoting sustainable consumer practices, this served as a high-profile way to draw awareness to a problem not on the radar of most consumers.

What’s Next

Levi’s has made great strides to limit water usage, but must do much more as water becomes increasingly scarce. The most obvious path forward is to scale the current initiatives – Water<Less accounts for 28% of total product volume4, and Levi’s sources just 12% of cotton from BCI farmers6.

While expanding these initiatives will help mitigate Levi’s water dependence, more dramatic steps need to be taken. Levi’s should explore the following options to continue the push towards a sustainable denim industry:

  • Increase Efficacy of Better Cotton Initiative: Levi’s can continue to amplify the impact of the BCI by investing to lower water usage in cotton production beyond the current 18%. Critical to this path is Levi’s ability to leverage scale to motivate suppliers to action.
  • Explore Vertical Integration of Supply Chain: Alternatively, Levi’s can cut out the independent growers and grow their own cotton. While it clearly would add significant complexity and new risks into their business model, owning the supply chain would result in direct control of the process.
  • Reduce Own Cotton Demand: Regardless of the source of cotton, Levi’s should reduce the amount of “new” cotton used in jeans. Levi’s has begun making inroads into the initiative, as earlier this year they partnered with textile startup Evrnu to create the first pair of jeans from post-consumer cotton waste7.
  • Facilitate Changes in Consumer Behavior: Reaction to Bergh’s proclamation that he has not washed his jeans in a year was mixed. One understandable reaction was to question the cleanliness of the practice. Would the reaction have been the same if the jeans were made using antimicrobial fabric? Currently, the energy around antimicrobial clothing is focused in the healthcare industry8. As the technology develops, Levi’s should explore integration into their own product lines to reduce the post-purchase water usage.

In 1853, Levi’s invented the denim category. Over 150 years later, Levi’s must reinvent the category to ensure the long-term sustainability of the industry.

(799 Words)


End Notes:

  1. The Water Footprint Network. http://waterprint.net/jeans.html, accessed November 2016.
  2. Jeans Info, “How Jeans Are Made” http://www.jeansinfo.org/how_they_make_jeans.html, accessed November 2016.
  3. Henderson, Rebecca; Reinert, Sophus; Dekhtyar, Polina; Migdal, Amram, “Climate Change in 2016: Implications for Business” October 14, 2016, Harvard Business School Publications, accessed November 2016.
  4. Levi’s Company Website. http://www.levistrauss.com/sustainability/products/waterless/, accessed November 2016.
  5. Chua, Jasmin Malik, “Levi’s is Open-Sourcing Its Water-Saving ‘Water<Less’ Process”, March 25, 2016, http://www.ecouterre.com/levis-is-open-sourcing-its-water-saving-waterless-process/, Accessed November 2016.
  6. LS&CO Unzipped Team, “Making Strides Through the Better Cotton Initiative”, Levi Strauss & Co Unzipped Blog, August 10, 2016, http://www.levistrauss.com/unzipped-blog/2016/08/making-strides-through-the-better-cotton-initiative/, accessed November 2016.
  7. Samaniego, Danielle, “Levi Strauss & Co. + Evrnu Create First Pair of Jeans from Post-Consumer Cotton Wate”, Levi Strauss & Co Unzipped Blog, May 11, 2016, http://www.levistrauss.com/unzipped-blog/2016/05/levi-strauss-co-evrnu-create-first-pair-of-jeans-from-post-consumer-cotton-waste/, accessed November 2016.
  8. Ricks, Delthia. “LI Hospital’s New ‘Super Scrubs’ Repel Germs”, Newsday, October 12, 2016. http://www.newsday.com/news/health/li-hospital-s-new-super-scrubs-repel-germs-1.12448475, accessed November 2016.


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14 thoughts on “Levi Strauss – Taking the Water Out of Jeans

  1. Its mind blowing to learn just how water intensive the production process of jeans is! I completely agree that Levi’s should increase the usage of its Water<Less accounts and BCI farmers. From an advocacy standpoint, it also has a conduit to a large viewership via Levi's Stadium. Perhaps Levi's can leverage this stadium as a means to communicate to consumers on a broad scale, increase awareness of the issue, and ultimately encourage a shift in mindset and ultimate purchase behavior. If Levi's can leverage its scale and market position to ultimate change the purchase criteria of its consumers, it could stand to make massive inroads in the denim industry as a whole.

  2. Thanks for such an interesting read! Had no idea the denim industry consumed so much water.
    The Water<Less finish process appears to have been a huge success and it's great to see such bold goals being accomplished.

    I like your suggestions to continue BCI and to begin using recycled denim, however, I am less enthusiastic about attempting to change consumer behavior. I personally prefer to never wash my jeans but I can't imagine convincing society to change such an ingrained behavior for such a small amount of water savings. It may have great messaging to improve Levi's brand reputation but I am skeptical of the actual water savings that can be achieved. Levi's should continue to focus on actions that it can take within its sphere of influence.

  3. The stats in this article are mindblowing, particularly the fact that 10,000L of water are used in the production process for ONE pair of jeans! I agree with many of the next steps that you outlined above – changes need to be made both internally within the company, from a supply chain perspective, as well as externally, by encouraging a shift in consumer behavior.

    Besides decreasing the amount of water used in cotton sourcing (via direct control of its own cotton farms, using recycled materials, etc), I wonder if there are additional changes within the actual production process to cut down on water usage – for example, does Levi’s need to use that much water to treat denim to “achieve the perfect look and feel”? Can Levi’s invest in R&D/developing innovative production machinery that cuts down on water usage/carbon emissions when producing a pair of jeans?

  4. Very interesting read! I had no idea that jeans production required so much water. It seems that Levi’s is heading in the right direction. But do you think this is enough? Also shouldn’t there be more controls on the entire denim industry? There are so many more jeans brands out there, I feel that the consumer has to be made aware of the amount of water ‘waste’ that goes into the production of a pair of jeans. I really like your suggestions on the way forward, but I do agree with alexmccurdy on the change of consumer behavior. This seems like a drastic, over-the-top move, somewhat invalidating the other essential steps.

    1. Thanks for the comment! It’s interesting to see multiple people responding to the consumer component.

      While I agree that the supply side pieces will have a greater impact, I think you actually highlight why the consumer component is important. This is, as you point out, an issue that the vast majority of consumers are unaware of. A consumer focused initiative is not solely about reducing water usage, it’s also inherently a way to drive awareness. Given this, I actually see it as something that reinforces the other steps, and not at all invalidating as you suggested.

      Is anti-microbial clothing the only answer? Of course not, but that was an example of something they can explore to impact consumer behavior.

  5. This is very interesting and eye opening, Alex. I am interested to know how jeans compare to other types of clothing such as khakis or sweatpants. Are jeans particularly bad, or are they just as bad as other types of clothing? The future changes in global demand for water are also going to be driven by a boom in population growth – people who will also need clothes. How does Levi’s not only prevent costs from going out of control but also make their products continue to be an accessible product for millions of new consumers? I would want them to look into the process and see where there is more water being used (if it’s actually the finishing process, or if it is just based on inefficient farming practices) and see what low hanging fruits they can pick.

  6. Thanks for the interesting post! I had no idea jeans required 10,000 liters of water for a single pair. I think the steps Levis has taken thus far have been admirable, but agree that they still face a great deal of challenges especially with regards to post user washing. Although the CEO’s experiment in not washing his jeans for over a year was interesting and thought-provoking, it is likely very unrealistic for the average consumer. I wonder if they have or might consider working alongside washer machine manufacturers as those manufacturers develop more energy and water efficient models. It might be beneficial for them to work on something along with those companies to ensure new technology is beneficial to the types of products Levis develops (and are ultimately pleasing to the end consumer).

  7. It was very interesting and eye-opening to read your post; I really wasn’t aware of the scale of which the denim industry consumes water. Even though I don’t agree that some of their practices are the solution to this problem (i.e. not washing your jeans and putting them in the freezer) it is quite effective to bring social media buzz to the issue and educate our population.
    On the other hand, I agree with your 4 proposals on other ways to tackle this challenge though I must say that one low hanging fruit of this is to bring even more buzz to the issue. I browsed through their website and there’s no easy way to get to know about their great work in water consumption reduction unless you go deep into the different links. This topic is becoming more relevant by the minute so it should be promoted more freely and openly across their organization.

  8. So interesting! I hadn’t even realized that the CEO had made that statement about not washing his jeans for a year. Even if Levi’s manages to integrate antimicrobial fabrics into their denim, I’m skeptical about the likelihood that the average consumer would actually not wash their jeans for a year. The main reason is fabric recovery! Maybe this a female-specific problem, but jeans tend to sag/stretch after several (if not just one) wears, resulting to the infamous “diaper butt” phenomenon. So, I find it hard to believe women wearing Levi’s would do this, unless Levi’s does some amazing R&D work on making sure their new antimicrobial fabric (I assume the easiest way would be to go the silver/silverescent route a la Lululemon) has excellent recovery.

    Also, I think there’s something to be said for the true cost of going green as a leader in the space with Levi’s sharing their Water<Less technology. Are they trying to make money off of sharing it with other brands or are they doing a good deed and assuming this as part of the "going green" cost? And really, what *should* they do?

  9. I always have a difficult time visualizing how much water it takes to produce common consumables. Intuitively I know that 10,000 liters is a lot—but comparing that to flushing my toilet 1600 times really helps drive the point home that our daily practices that we *think* use a lot of water very much pale in comparison to water-intensive products like jeans.

    I very much like Levi’s commitment to Water<Less by sharing the techniques to competitors. This reminds me of Elon Musk’s decision to encourage competitors to use Tesla’s patents in good faith to continue progress toward more sustainable industry-wide practices. I think an action like this helps differentiate companies from those who are only seeking positive PR from initiates vs actually “walking the talk.”

    To extend this further, I agree that more needs to be done. I’m particularly a fan of vertical integration of supply chain, since agriculture is the foremost consumer of water in the world. Although risky in the short-term, it seems that it could really confer a competitive advantage in the future as other suppliers struggle to deal with decreasing water supplies.
Very interesting article!

  10. Alex, thanks for writing such a compelling article. The statistics in the beginning were particularly jarring and ensured my interest for the rest of the post. I also appreciated the 4 proposals you listed at the end.

    While it has been brought up a few times, I’d like to look at your fourth suggestion from a slightly different angle. I wonder whether Levi’s would be willing to create jeans that would increase the durability per pair and potentially suppress consumer need for additional pairs of jeans in the future. While I recognize that the style argument can be made as a potential catalyst for people to buy new jeans, I would assume that more people buy jeans based on the wear and tear of everyday life (including cleaning). Moreover, if Levi’s were fully invested in making significant contributions to climate change, they could encourage people to buy used pairs of Levi’s jeans. This would mean that Levi’s revenues may again be affected. Unfortunately, it seems like the largest impacts in the fight against climate change may require consumers to negatively impact the Levi’s bottomline.

    In doing a search regarding this topic, I also found an interesting article about “Odorless Jeans”. These jeans that supposedly wash themselves and are generally stain-resistant leading, presumably, to less rounds in the washing machine(1). While this notion would be interesting for a large company like Levi’s to try, again I wonder how much they are willing to sacrifice with regard to additional jean sales. Would they be ok with people buying a couple pair of jeans to last them for a decade?


  11. Thanks for a fashionable post. I used to work various projects in apparel supply chain and realized how critical to be eco-friendly in this business. I think, sustainability efforts follows a three phase cycle. In the embracing phase sustainability goes hands in hands with efficiency such to reduce waster and water usage as in the case. In the second phase, brands try to push pressure on suppliers and enforce them to implement higher standards. By doing so, brands are able to raise standards without bearing significant cost of sustainability. In the final and most challenging phase, brands should be ready to innovate for sustainability. After some pont return from efficiencies get diminished significantly. Hence, without disruptive innovation in manufacturing processes or product design, brands are not able to remain competitive in terms of healthy margins anr attractive consumer prices.

  12. Very interesting article! Levi’s has made substantial improvements to their climate impact and has been able generate positive press and marketing from these initiatives! This campaign was a popular one in the Indian market – “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q6rih0bapWQ” Good example of how one can leverage the investments made to improve the impact on the overall environment, to drive consumer behavior and finally sales.

  13. Who knew that manufacturing jeans was such an intensely water consuming activity. I am impressed that Levi’s was able to reduce water consumption by 96% – wonder why they didn’t look into this sooner! I also liked the idea of recycling / reusing the water used in jean production. Of all your suggestions on what more they could do I think changing consumer behavior will be the hardest.

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