Green jeans

A post on GreenerDesign, an excerpt from a speech by the CEO of Levi Strauss, which describes how the company took a look at some of their products, to get a good look at the actual environmental impact of those products, what they found, and what they decided to do about it:

Our study found that a single pair of 501s, from growing the cotton to consumer care and disposal really does have an impact. A significant one. The lifecycle study of one pair of 501s generates 32.3 kilograms of carbon (78 miles of driving), 3480 liters of water (53 showers) and 400 megajoules of energy (running a plasma tv for 318 hours).

But the real lesson of the lifecycle study is that some of the biggest sustainability impacts have nothing to do with processing denim, sewing jeans or shipping clothes.

What we learned — to our surprise — was that some of the biggest environmental impacts we make fall outside our supply chain control: Namely, growing cotton (49 percent of water in the lifecycle) and consumers washing and drying our clothes (58 percent of the climate impact).

Since the products they were looking at are made primarily from cotton, I'm not particularly surprised that a huge percentage of the water impact is related to the production of the material itself.

The climate impact from washing and drying, though; that does seem a little surprising at first glance. On the other hand, if you wash your jeans once a week and keep them for several years, that's a LOT of washings, which means water and energy, especially if you use hot water and a dryer. (Skimming their life-cycle analysis, I did not see what the expected lifetime of the pants actually is.)

So here's what they decided to do about the cotton:

. . . we've joined forces with other brands and retailers such as Marks & Spencer, Adidas, and Ikea in an organization called the Better Cotton Initiative. You know about organic cotton, which addresses the use of chemicals in cotton agriculture. Better Cotton reduces chemical use and goes beyond that to try and address other environmental impacts, such as water use and soil health. It also includes labor standards and tries to improve financial profitability for farmers. So, it incorporates the three key aspects of sustainability — environmental, social and economic sustainability.

And the washing/drying:

We recently launched an exciting new partnership with Goodwill — A Care Tag for Our Planet — to spread the word with consumers that caring for their clothes can help care for the planet.

By changing our care tags, we were the first major apparel company to change our garment care labels to urge consumers to take action by "washing in cold water," "line drying" and "donating unwanted clothing. We're hoping this helps put a dent in the 68 billion pounds of clothing a year that end up in landfills in the US.

I'm really, really curious about how these efforts are going to play out in the real world, especially the care tag program. Because it would be really awesome if such simple steps could help lead to the overall cultural changes we need.

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