The Report

Levi Strauss wrings water out of jeans production

Levi Strauss wrings water out of jeans production

Posting in Sustainability | From Issue 15 April 7 & 14, 2014

The iconic blue jeans company is testing systems for capturing and reusing water in denim manufacturing plants, part of a larger effort to reduce its environmental impact.

Your favorite blue jeans might seem environmentally innocuous, but like most textiles, they consume considerable quantities of energy, chemicals and water throughout their lifecycle. 

Because many apparel production processes were developed as if water were an unlimited resource, it can take as much as 200 tons of water (about 47,930 gallons) to produce one ton of fabric, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Levi Strauss & Co., one of a handful of major clothing brands working with suppliers to reduce water and energy consumption, is championing a pilot program through which water is collected and reused during the laundering process. While only 100,000 pairs of jeans have been produced using recycled water so far, the company plans to expand the system to other of its 100 contract manufacturers and its four company-owned factories around the world, thereby shrinking the water footprint behind its denim by an order of magnitude. Beyond that, Levi Strauss is sharing its blueprints, so to speak, by publishing a guide to water recycling that it hopes other manufacturers will adopt.

Technically, the recycling system is not terribly complex. After laundering, the water is already sent through a filtration system to remove enough chemical and biological components to bring its quality up to snuff for effluent standards that Levi Strauss has set for itself (and which in some localities exceeds local standards for wastewater). To enable recycling, some treated water is diverted, further cleaned, and then piped into laundry machines to be used again. Some machines use 100 percent recycled water, others rely on a mix of recycled and fresh water.

It's a great stride toward more sensible water management policies. It's also a drop in the bucket—a big drop, but a drop nonetheless. Fortunately, this isn't the first water-saving step Levi Strauss has taken—in 2011, it began changing the way it produces clothing and those changes have saved around 770 million liters of water already.

Untapped potential

The textile industry as a whole has been slow to innovate on water consumption, says W. Gilbert O'Neal, president of the Institute of Textile Technology, which works with the North Carolina State University (ITT/NCSU) Textile and Material Research Consortium to provide research and consulting services to the industry. "I would say Levi's has taken a leadership role, because you don’t see a lot of [water] reuse in the industry," he says.

On the other hand, recycling water is not always a simple matter of filtering wastewater and piping it back into an industrial machine. The risks are especially high in dyeing processes, which consume significantly more water than laundering, O'Neal says. "A major dye house might be using four to five gallons of water a day," he notes.

Because it is still fairly clear of dyes, effluent from final dye rinse baths can generally be reused, as a supplement to fresh water, in initial baths. But if the contaminants in the reused water are high enough to impact the desired color of the fabric, and the customer then rejects the resulting product, the factory has suddenly wasted far more than just water.

In some cases, recycling water could concentrate certain contaminants, such as salts from dyes, in the water, which could throw the energy equation out of whack. "In parts of the world where water supply is not limited, it's generally going to take more energy to render that water to a level where it can be reused than it would be to purchase clean water," O'Neal says. 

Of course, the cost of clean water is only going to grow in most parts of the world, so forward-looking corporations must begin building systems for reuse now. Plus, tracking the amounts and hazards of chemical inputs is just as important as reducing water consumption. Michael Kobori, vice president, Supply Chain Social and Environmental Sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co., says water recycling is "one part of a broader supplier chemical management program that limits or eliminates the use of certain chemicals in the manufacture of Levi Strauss & Co. products."

Greenpeace has conducted a years-long campaign to raise awareness around the apparel industry's use of certain chemical groups, including nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) and perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), that have been linked to environmental toxicity and human health problems. A number of clothing brands, including Levi Strauss & Co., have committed to phase out the use of these target chemicals, which Greenpeace claims cannot be removed using conventional wastewater filtration systems but can be replaced with cost-comparable alternatives.

O'Neal admits many textile factories have subpar water treatment systems that fail to properly contain those toxins, but says those with properly designed wastewater treatment systems can treat NPEs (used in surfactants) adequately. More research is needed into the long-term safety and viability of alternatives, he adds.

"When it comes to NPEs," O'Neal says. "You need surfactants. You need detergents to emulsify and clean materials and keep those contaminants from going back onto the fabric. So we need to do research to find detergents that are more biodegradable and still have the same effectiveness [as detergents that contain NPEs]. When people call for the banning of certain substances, it has to be looked at very carefully so that you're not throwing out good applications of those chemicals."

Photo: Levi Strauss & Co.

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure