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.
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.
- The Water Footprint Network. http://waterprint.net/jeans.html, accessed November 2016.
- Jeans Info, “How Jeans Are Made” http://www.jeansinfo.org/how_they_make_jeans.html, accessed November 2016.
- 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.
- Levi’s Company Website. http://www.levistrauss.com/sustainability/products/waterless/, accessed November 2016.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.