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OM in the News: Blue Jeans and Sustainability

April 17, 2015

jeans“The four-year drought in California is hurting more than just farmers,” reports The Wall Street Journal (April 10, 2015). It is also having a significant impact on the fashion industry and spurring changes in how jeans are made and how they should be laundered. Southern California is estimated to be the world’s largest supplier of so-called premium denim, the $100 to $200-plus-a-pair of designer jeans. Water is a key component in the various steps of the processing and repeated washing with stones, or bleaching and dyeing that create that “distressed” vintage look. Southern California produces 75% of the high-end denim in the U.S. that is sold world-wide. The area employs about 200,000 people, making it the largest U.S. fashion manufacturing hub.

Now that water conservation is a global priority, major denim brands are working to cut water use. Levi, with sales of $5 billion, is using ozone machines to replace the bleach traditionally used to lighten denim. It is also reducing the number of times it washes jeans. The company has saved more than a billion liters of water since 2011 with its Levi’s Water Less campaign. By 2020, the company plans to have 80% of Levi’s brand products made using the Water Less process, up from about 25% currently.

Traditionally, about 34 liters of water are used in the cutting, sewing and finishing process to make a pair of Levi’s signature 501 jeans. Nearly 3,800 liters of water are used throughout the lifetime of a pair of Levi’s 501. A study found cotton cultivation represents 68% of that and consumer washing another 23%. So Levi is promoting the idea that jeans only need washing after 10 wears. (The average American consumer washes after 2 wears.) Levi’s CEO recently urged people to stop washing their jeans, saying he hadn’t washed his one-year-old jeans at the time. “You can air dry and spot clean instead,” he said.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. Why is sustainability a major issue in the fashion industry?
2. What else can manufacturers do to cut water usage and waste?

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