Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Levi's New Jeans Line Misses the Point

Apparently Levi's has developed a new line of jeans that uses 28% less water during its manufacturing. Specifically, the amount of washing needed to soften the denim has been reduced, and while I'm happy that 16 million litres of water will be saved, I'm left wondering just how much we should be congratulating the company.

I know, I know, I'm an idealist, and it gets in the way of my optimism such that every step in the right direction only serves to highlight everything else that isn't being done. It's hard for me to sit idly by while the general public applauds small efforts like this but remains ignorant of other issues that remain unaddressed. What can I say, calling this new line of jeans Water<Less reminds me of greenwashing. Growing cotton, producing denim, and manufacturing jeans is hugely water-intensive even if you don't bother to stone-wash the pants! Hiding this fact by tricking consumers into believing the jeans were made using waterless manufacturing techniques is... well, I guess it's the norm these days.

So what's all the fuss about?

  • Growing cotton involves a great deal of water, fertilizer, and pesticides:  just ask the people living around the Aral Sea how the cotton industry, using unsustainable agricultural practices, has caused an environmental, economic, and human health disaster that is not going away any time soon.
  • Processing cotton to make denim requires more water, but also paraffin and synthetic indigo, which present a double whammy of environmental degradation because (1) they are petroleum products and (2) they're probably dumped directly into surface water adjacent to the plant.
  • Weathering the denim to give it that worn look (I've never understood this), while often still called stone-washing, is more likely to make use of water and toxic chemicals than good, old-fashioned rocks. It's funny how the energy that goes into stone-washing, fabric softening, and sandblasting the jeans actually serves to shorten their lifespan and increase consumer demand. No, wait... that's not funny.

See what I mean, about how slightly reducing the amount of water used to soften the jeans is only great if you remain ignorant of the rest of the steps involved from field to closet? Well, I'm still trying to be a more optimistic person, so I'll work on feeling grateful that Levi's has taken a step in the right direction. Meanwhile, I'll buy my next pair in a thrift shop, donate them or find an alternate use for them once I'm done with them, and keep you apprised of any other environmentally friendly solutions that Levi's and their competitors come up with!

How about you? What's your closet filled with? Have you discovered brands or local artisans that are trying to do good by the environment when they make clothing?

Photo credits: close-up of jeans; cotton field.


  1. All except one pair of my jeans are either hand-me-downs from my sister (who buys way too much clothing) or thrift store finds. There are rows and rows of basically new jeans at the thrift store; I'm pretty sure we don't actually need to be using resources to make new ones.

    It's a nice gesture on Levi's part, but it doesn't address the root of the problem -- that we need to be consuming a lot less, not just making manufacturing processes more efficient.

  2. I think once people realize that the quality of the jeans in thrift stores is actually quite high - and the price tag really low - they'll come around to the idea. Next time my friends ask me to join them on the hunt for new clothes, I'll invite them to the Sally Ann and "convert" them to a new way of shopping.

  3. This is one area I need to work on next. Clothes have such an environmental footprint, between the production, the water, the chemicals... Then we get them home and wash them and use hot water and more detergents, and then we put them in the dryer and burn carbon so our clothes come out all warm and fluffy. I am trying to wear jeans and other clothes several times befoe washing and now air dry everything. I am also going to attempt to MEND the knees of my 5-year old son's jeans. If we don't wear jeans, what is better? Plain cotton pants? I also don't like many of them are made in China under horrible working conditions. I watched a documentary called China Blue (about a company that made jeans for Walmart) and it made me want to cry. Those young girls had no lives at all, and got very little sleep, often working 16 hour days. What poor girl suffered so I could have all these jeans?

    Love your blog BTW, I found you through Jennifer's noteasytobegreen.

  4. Kudos for mending the knees in your son's jeans! It's amazing that doing this doesn't occur to most people. Getting an extra year of life out of jeans makes a big difference over a lifetime.

    Thanks for commenting! I look forward to following the posts on your blog.