Levi’s CEO: Do the world a favor n’ wash your jeans once every 10 wears

March 19, 2015, 5:36 PM UTC
Fortune Brainstorm Green 2014
Photograph by Stuart Isett — Fortune Brainstorm

I am the CEO with “dirty jeans.” Well, not exactly. My jeans are clean; I just don’t throw them in the washing machine all that much – research we began conducting in 2007 convinced me not to. Still, that insight, shared last spring at Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference, cemented my reputation as the CEO who never washes his jeans.

Those comments could be just another moment gone viral – but with the United Nations’ World Water Day fast upon us on Sunday, the issues they raise (water stewardship, climate change and consumer responsibility) are simply too important to let the moment come and go. That’s why I’ve embraced my reputation as the CEO who says, “wash less” and why I’m proud to leverage the insight and innovation of my company to help tackle the challenge. After all, few are as well positioned as CEOs to help solve some of the world’s greatest challenges.

It’s no surprise that the manufacture of jeans is a water-intensive process, but a 2007 study we conducted (and updated this year) detailed just how big a part of the water and climate problem we are. The latest study showed that, on average, a single pair of 501 jeans consumes nearly 3,800 liters of water and produces 33 kg of carbon emissions throughout its lifetime.

That data galvanized us and pushed us to rethink how we make our jeans – and how we could become part of the solution. It led to the creation of the Levi’s Water<Less process and implementation of the apparel industry’s first standard for 100% water recycling and reuse. Our push to curb water use across our operations has — so far — saved more than one billion liters of water globally since 2011. It’s also given us the credibility to challenge our customers to embrace more sustainable practices.

For example, our Care Tag for the Planet is sewn into every pair of jeans and encourages consumers to adopt care methods that use less energy and water. Because if the average American washed their jeans after every 10 times they wore them rather than every two times as they do today, it would decrease their energy and climate change impact by 80%, according to the life-cycle assessment study conducted by Industrial Ecology Consultants and Levi Strauss &Co.

But that alone isn’t enough. Even with the best intentions, companies today can only help solve some of the environmental and social issues that impact our world. In order to really make a difference, we must also encourage our global supply chain partners, and consumers to prioritize these issues.

Multiplying such efforts would be significant—and those opportunities aren’t pipe dreams. It would, however, require CEOs of major companies in the U.S. and across the world to use their voice and actions to address the debate about water consumption, climate change and the overall state of our planet. And for many, it’s already happening. CEOs like Richard Branson (founded the Carbon War Room), Tim Cook (hired a former Environmental Protection Agency chief to run sustainability) and Paul Polman (drafted a 10-year Sustainable Living Plan) are all actively addressing the need for change.

More than 800 million people in the world lack access to safe water. It’s a problem that impacts both rich and poor communities. Today, the Western U.S., including LS&Co.’s home state of California, is wrestling with an unprecedented drought. And scientists warn that climate changes in the near future could create “megadroughts” and monster wildfires across the Midwest and Western U.S.

These dire predictions call for action. Sweeping changes in consumer behavior will only happen if companies play their part in helping solve the big issues.

Now and for the foreseeable future, any random web search will likely define me as the “dirty jeans” CEO. I embrace the moniker, inspired by the fact that my comments may provoke greater environmental awareness. And as World Water Day arrives, I hope my CEO colleagues will join me, using their voices to inspire, educate and engage their employees and consumers about how even little changes in our daily routine can have a huge impact on our environment and its precious resources.

Charles V. Bergh is CEO of Levi Strauss & Co.

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