How Levi’s thinks we should be doing our laundry (or: the Emperor’s not wearing any blue jeans…)

I gotta hand it to them: Levi Strauss released their new ‘recycle your clothing‘ program this week with a whole lot more fanfare than they shared their Life Cycle Assessment back in March. The recycling program (which gives customers a 20% discount on new product when they bring in their old clothing to be recycled) garnered immediate praise, but as I stumbled upon the Assessment for the first time, it appears that the discount program is really just so much more spin — intended to keep our attention focused on something other than the honest-to-goodness truth: buying a new pair of 501s (like so many other new things on this planet) results in environmental harm.

Spin is everything, of course — and while Levi’s is, indeed, doing significant work to innovate in the ecological impact-reduction space, the report is clearly crafted to tell a story that Levi’s wants us to hear (namely: consumer behaviors have a significant impact as part of the product life cycle of a pair of 501s, and consumers should alter their behavior to offset the water and climate change impacts of the product’s lifecycle).

According to Levi’s, consumer use and cotton production are the two biggest water-using culprits in the product life cycle (And they are…just not in the order the report would lead us to believe). Consumer use also appears to be Levi’s single largest concern when it comes to Climate Change Impact (Co2-e): at 12.9% of total energy consumption, the ‘consumer use’ blue bar is alone in being nearly off the chart.

As the key follow-up from these data points (that consumer use is a primary factor in both water and energy use), the report tells us that if American consumers would only roughly quintuple the number of times they wear a pair of jeans between washings (i.e. wearing their blue jeans a mere 10 times between washes, instead of the current average of roughly 2.3 times), then we, the people, could reduce our impact on the environment by up to 80% (80%!! That’s HUGE!). And yep: if the number of times we all (as in, average wash frequency) wear those pants between laundering efforts increases from 2 to 10, Their Math Is Spot On (and I can smell the future already).

What Levi’s chose not to point out, however, is that of the total product life cycle, the consumer use phase accounts for just 23% of TOTAL water consumption, where the new production phases for your pants account for 77% of water usage. What else didn’t they point out as they were hinting at our capacity to save money on laundry soap? That there are faster, easier ways to save a whole lot more water when it comes to our 501 blues.

As with water usage, nearly two thirds of all energy consumption (to wit: Climate Change Impact) during that life cycle is also accounted for through the new creation of a single pair of jeans — it just looks better for Levi’s when all of the different new production phases are parsed out into littler, shorter stubs of blue (which, combined, add up to 60%…or more than quadruple the total consumer use impact from the aforementioned chart).

It appears that Levi’s devoted the bulk of their report to telling other people (we, the consumers) how we should focus on addressing roughly 25-35% of Levi’s total product life cycle impact problem, without being similarly transparent about how we (said consumers) can directly impact the other 65-75% of life cycle impact (i.e. the phases for which Levi Strauss is directly accountable).

And since the data is telling us how we can help them reduce their impact further (and since they’ve already used the data to point out that consumers are responsible for reducing the life-cycle impact of their product), it’s clear that we have the power – and to their point, the obligation, even – to do more (much more, and with very little effort):

Replacing the purchase of one pair of new Levi’s 501s with the purchase of a similar, but secondhand pair of Levi’s 501s will immediately reduce your resource impact to the tune of nearly 800 gallons of water. And if I understood their interpretation of an ‘average use’ for their product, then holding onto the same pair of Levi’s 501s for a second year will double that impact.

Scaling back the laundry to one wash for every 10 wears (besides the obvious gross-out factor)? Just 225 gallons of water savings over the ‘average life’ of the jeans (or, a measly 1/3 of the impact of just buying your denim at the thrift shop).

Extreme denim laundry measures also account for less than half of the CO2-e volume mitigated by simply buying a used pair (9.42 kg, compared with a savings of 20 kg when you choose to take home a previously-loved, perfectly broken-in pair of jeans).

Now- let’s not throw best practices out with the wash water — because there ARE simple practices to reduce the impact of your laundry on the environment (DO use cold water. DO adjust the load size. DO wash your stuff less often. DO line dry yer skivvies. DO use less detergent – and preferably, choose one without all the nasty stuff that’s ruining our lakes and rivers. And if you’re considering a new machine, DO invest in one that’s high efficiency).

I’m not even saying that you shouldn’t adopt the ‘don’t wash your laundry until it threatens to run away’ strategy (because hey – every little bit helps…especially if you’re trying to make sure tonight’s date ends early on account of your soon-to-be-legendary B.O…) –But remember that these laundry changes will have the greatest impact when applied broadly to all contents in your closet (and not just used by a huge company to redirect your attention away from the best-possible, highest-impact consumer behavior change).

What the assessment data points out beautifully, without actually saying it, is this: if you want to reduce your climate change impact — and your water consumption, you have one obvious, high-impact opportunity: choosing to reuse — to pop tags, to thrift, to embrace your inner scavenger — will not only be a whole lot more interesting (and a fair deal less expensive, with the bonus of not having to wonder about potential shrinkage), but it will also invariably be the better environmental bet.

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