LEVI’S 501 DAY | CUTTING FROM A GREENER DENIM CLOTH

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If you had to pick just one article of clothing to represent pure American style– what would it be?  For me it would without a doubt be the Levi’s 501 jean without a doubt.  It embodies so much of this great country’s heritage– from tough prospecting roots, to a symbol of 1950′s teenage rebellion and everything in between– it’s a staple of everyday life, and at the same time a firmly established fashion icon that still inspires designers here and abroad.

Buying a new pair of 501′s has long been a ritual of love for me.  Going through the stack, looking for little signs that will lead me to the perfect pair– side belt loops stitched directly to the back-yoke seam, side seam spread wide to provide great wear ‘tracks’ down the road, maybe even a little hint of leg twist already apparent…

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levi strauss levi's 501 jean

The iconic Levi's shrink-to-fit 501 jean

 

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To celebrate this year’s 501 Day (on May 1st of every year) Levi’s is launching an organic update of the classic 1947 501 jean.  It’s a reflection of their ongoing commitment to move towards more humane and environmental practices for their workers and the planet.

From the San francisco Business Times–

For the world’s oldest and most iconic jeans maker, going green is about more than doing what’s right.

“In one way, it’s a matter of survival as a company,” said Michael Kobori, vice president of supply chain, social and environmental sustainability at Levi.

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denim prospecters miners


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Levi Strauss & Co., born in 1853 at the height of the Gold Rush, has always prided itself in its corporate citizenship. It has been a leader in AIDS support and prevention and has formed initiatives to address institutional racism and programs to assist employees in becoming U.S. citizens. Founder Levi Strauss was a well-known philanthropist.

But its new vision, the one that will determine if Levi can survive and thrive for another 150 years and beyond, is as much about the bottom line as it is about helping the Earth.

Levi adopted a new mission statement in March 2008: “We will build sustainability into everything we do so our profitable growth helps restore the environment.”

The company has just received the results of a lifecycle analysis for its Levi 501 jeans and Dockers brand Original Khaki. The study looked at the impact their production has on the environment from the cotton field to a consumer’s closet, all the way to what happens to jeans once they’ve enjoyed their last wear. The point is to figure out how to reduce its impact on the environment, head off risk associated with increasingly strict environmental regulations, cut rising energy costs and bolster profits.

Jeans production is resource intensive: Levi’s lifecycle analysis showed that one pair of jeans produces 33.2 kilograms of carbon dioxide, and uses 3,480.5 liters of water and 400.1 megajoules of energy. That’s the equivalent of driving a car 78 miles, taking 53 showers and watching a plasma TV screen for 318 hours.

“If we can consume less energy, materials, and water, we can reduce our costs, and those cost savings drop to the bottom line,” Kobori said.

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1934 vintage 501 jean1934 vintage levi's 501 jean
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Denim’s carbon footprint

The inherent challenges to document, let alone reduce, its impact on the environment are obvious for Levi.

The company is dependent on the notoriously pesticide- and water-intensive cotton industry. Levi also has a massive, worldwide supply chain. That complicates its ability to trace its environmental footprint as materials move from growers to the processors and millers, to the dyers and sewers and finally to retail stores.

Armed with the results of the life cycle analysis, the company will look for ways to reduce energy use along its supply chain. It’s encouraging suppliers to recycle process water and experiementing with finishing techniques that would use less water in making jeans. It’s also commissioned a study of its facilities’ greenhouse gas emisisons and will set targets to reduce those next year after results are finalized.

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ripped torn faded levi 501 denim jean
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Cold water, tumble dry warm

Some of the changes are simple.

In initial studies, Levi discovered that the two phases that account for the most energy use and greenhouse gas emissions along the life cycle of a pair of jeans are the fabric-production phase — 21 percent of the total climate change impact — and the consumer use phase, which accounts for 58 percent of a pair of jeans’ climate impact.

People tend to keep the same pair of jeans for years and they might wash them hundreds of times. For decades Levi has instructed people to wash jeans in warm or hot water and tumble dry.

“We can’t change consumer behavior but we can certainly change what we’re directing them to do, so we’re changing all of our care labels worldwide to say wash in cold water, tumble dry warm,” Kobori said.

If customers follow those instructions, they could reduce energy used over the life of their jeans by 87 percent and reduce carbon emissions by 90 percent. And the company is considering how to use fabrics that don’t need to be washed as often and, at the retail level, about encouraging customers to wash jeans less to conserve water and energy.

The company is also working on sharing water quality standards from its factories with other companies and has started a sustainable cotton group to look at the environmental issues around cotton and what changes Levi could make.

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501 jeans501 jeans

Organic jeans

Levi is phasing in organic cotton into one line of its products and has joined the Organic Exchange, which supports organic farming and works with companies to use more organic products. So far 1 percent of the cotton Levi uses is organic and goes into its “eco” line of products, which also contains 20 percent post-consumer denim. Organic cotton makes up less than one percent of all the cotton grown in the world, so even if Levi wanted to switch to 100 percent organic cotton for all of its products, it most likely couldn’t find the supply.

“Their effort is similar to what other companies are doing,” said Rebecca Calahan Klein, director of program development for the Berkeley-based Organic Exchange, which supports organic farming. “They have not transitioned all of their product. They’re being structured and systematic about how they’re integrating organic cotton into their product offering. And that’s good. We want people to be thoughtful about how they do it because we want it to be sustainable.”

Levi is smart to be looking at these issues before it is forced to, said Gil Friend, president and CEO of Berkeley-based strategic consulting firm Natural Logic.

“From a company point of view you can see this as a market share growing strategy or a risk-mitigation strategy,” he said. “What you really can’t do any more is an ‘I’m going to sit on my hands until I have to do something strategy.’ It’s not good business management any more.”

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vintage levi strauss denim jean adlevis jeans ad 1979

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FROM COTTON FIELDS TO RECYCLE BIN

Levi Strauss & Co. recently commissioned a study to find out the climate impact in making Levi’s 501 jeans. The company will use the results to reduce the impact of its products over their entire life cycle.

32.3 kg of CO2
78 miles driven by the average auto in the
United States.
Is equivalent to the carbon sequestered by six trees per year (based on EPA representative sequestration rates of tons of carbon
per acre per year).
3,480.5 liters of water
Running a garden hose
for 106 minutes.
53 showers (based
on 7-minute showers).
575 flushes of a 3.78 liter-per-flush low flow toilet.
400.1 MJ of energy
Watching TV on a plasma screen for 318 hours.
Powering a computer
for 556 hours. Which is equivalent to 70 work days (based on 8 hours
of computer use/day).
SOURCE: LS&CO.’s Life Cycle Assessment on Levi’s 501 Jean for U.S. Market, 2006 production year.

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15 thoughts on “LEVI’S 501 DAY | CUTTING FROM A GREENER DENIM CLOTH

  1. hope these dont have green selvage or something silly… why are the press releases all out of singapore it seems?? anyway, great idea, friday is jeans day then… or hawaiian shirt day.

  2. hello,
    thank you for mentioning this, it is another great initiative; levi’s europe have had environmentally conscious products in their line for a while now, and i am glad to see it expanding to the mother company.
    one fact that people are not aware of however, is that for many years already levi’s has been blending organic cotton fiber in the denim used for the regular 501.
    the goal was to have about 5% of the fiber content from organic growers, and cone mills has been doing it for a long time already; it was never publicized for several reasons, one of them being the inconsistent availability of the fiber, but it was levi’s way of supporting the local organic farmers.
    i am happy to see it becoming part of a company wide approach to sustainability, done in a realistic manner!

    • Stefano,

      Thanks for the great insider info. I checked out your site– you have some pretty amazing brand partnerships, and have been around the block my friend. Very impressive. Thanks again for stopping by.

      JP

  3. quick question – why is it preferable to have the side belt loops stitched directly to the back yoke seam?

      • thanks JP – I recently picked up a pair of 501 shrink to fits after going through several pairs of apcs that never seemed to quite work. it’s a pretty amazing feeling that a pair of 35 dollar jeans trumps all of them – they’ve become my favorites. and fortunately they have the stitching detail you mentioned – thanks for the heads up

  4. sam,
    the weakest point of a belt loop is where it is stitched to a single layer of fabric; in fact, whenever belt loops ‘fail’, it is never the belt loop itself, it is the fabric to which it is attached….. when it is on the felled seam, it is virtually impossible to tear.
    incidentally, that is why the oldest jeans did NOT have it stitched that way (remember the old ones with slanted center back loop?); it was not aesthetics, they simply could not get their sewing machines to go through more layers!

  5. I never even considered the fact that i don’t wash my jeans and it makes a smaller environmental footprint. There’s another counter-argument to those who say “you haven’t washed your pants in HOW long??? Gross!”

    “Hey, its for the environment.”

  6. why can’t i find these 1947 eco shrink to fit levi’s anywhere in NYC???!!! or online?? how do i get a pair?? anyone know? i’m trying to get a 36×38 size (~34×35 after shrink) which just makes the search all the more impossible…a week ago my 1947 stf 501′s ripped…i need a new pair…or two so i can wear them practically everday. this was an aaaawesome article thanks! and thanks for any info anyone can lend in helping me find a pair.

  7. I love 501s but jumping through all those hoops to make them “greener” is silly, boring, and pointless in the small scheme of things never mind the large. I’d appreciate a five dollar price cut a lot more than all that preening self-congratulatory green hugger-mugger.

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