Learning from the Bees, Levi Touts Stronger Jeans

Learning from the Bees, Levi Touts Stronger Jeans

Choose green blue jeans

In a print media full of hype, one or two articles stand out. One is the Denny’s Restaurant chain, which plans to capitalize on the mesmerizing little hobbits of J.R.R. Tolkien fame in their new movie – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey– to peddle Middle Earth meals. Expect the movie to be enchanting: the menus, starting with Bilbo’s Breakfast (groan), are laboriously overcute.

The announcement, from blue jeans maker Levi, is exactly the opposite. In undertones as subtle as the color of its washed, pre-stressed jeans, Levi has gone proudly green with one line of jeans, which will be made of at least 20 percent recycled plastic in the form of soda and water bottles.

Their pitch – that the jeans are made of garbage – is likely to catch on rapidly. The Boomer generation didn’t grow up on environmental conservation; Gen X’ers, hitting middle age, have heard and read and seen nothing else. Jeans made of trash is a love affair waiting to happen.

Called The Wasteless Denim collection, and making its debut Tuesday, October 16, this line of jeans almost makes up for Levi’s former profile as a polluter in various overseas manufacturing locations, using conventional cotton, astonishing amounts of water, toxic chemicals like cadmium, copper, lead and mercury, and finally the blue indigo dye which has left entire rivers a blue they were never meant to be. Not to mention silicosis among workers who sandblast the jeans to give them that beloved pre-worn (stressed) look.

To its credit, Levi has been at the head of the line of manufacturers who are seriously trying to develop a greener method for making blue jeans. Early in 2011, the company debuted another environmentally-friendly product called Water-Less jeans, which uses 28-percent less water than the average 33 liters (about 8.7 gallons). Eventually, one would hope, they will refine the stressing process so that an additional 5,000 workers aren’t afflicted with silicosis before the end of this decade.

As Levi’s chief merchandiser and designer Paul Dillinger noted last October, a true metric for sustainability can’t start with the label: it has to start with the raw cotton. Accordingly, in 2007, the company was among the first in the clothing industry to calibrate a life-cycle assessment, or total of environmental impact, of its major blue jeans lines.

Surprisingly, almost half the water used to make and wear jeans comes from the consumer side of the sustainable equation, so in 2011 Levi launched a campaign asking its customers to wash jeans in cold water. It also held seminars with the farmers of cotton-growing nations – Brazil, India, Mali and Pakistan – from which it sourced its raw material, denim. These cotton farmers were, before the classes, using a whopping 49-percent of available water supplies to grow the cotton in hot, arid climates where just getting potable water was a major undertaking.

Levi was lucky as well as smart. It took a lesson from Nature regarding the way fibers were assembled and how design processes could be altered to create a closed- (or almost-closed-) loop system where all the raw materials are in some way recycled. This is in opposition to the manufacturing community’s current model, an open system, which inevitably wastes raw materials.

The fiber assembly lesson came from bees, which make strong, durable honeycomb from interweaving resin to make short lengths of fiber, according to a team of designers, engineers, sustainability experts and textile virtuosos who spent some time in the wilds of Montana observing how wild bees performed this amazing feat.

So how can you, the consumer, help Levi reach its goal of sustainability? Obviously you need to wash your jeans, but perhaps not every time you wear them for a few hours (or less). If you think washing is the only way to get them to fit ski-tight again, try throwing them in the dryer with a wet bath towel – but not too wet or you will damage your dryer.

Because they are made from cotton, jeans take a lot of drying time. This doesn’t mean you can’t line-dry them, which will make them smell as good as they look. Unless, of course, you live in a neighborhood, city or housing development that forbids clotheslines. If you do, see if you can find supporters to convince your city or Homeowner’s Association to do away with this antiquated and clearly environmentally-unfriendly law.

Finally, you can use your Internet connection to research which blue jean manufacturers are focused on sustainability – defined as using only enough resources to maintain a moderately comfortable style of living, while insuring that future generations will have the same opportunity.

Go forth, Gen X’ers, and show us Baby Boomers where we failed!

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