Stonewashed Jeans, Minus the Washed

This week’s blog post was written by WCO intern Laura Keys and does not necessarily reflect the clothes-washing views of the Water Conservation Office.

How many gallons of water does it take to make a pair of jeans?

When you ask a classroom of young students this question, you might get responses ranging from 0 to 100. Imagine the shock on their faces when you tell them it can take more than 1,000 gallons of water just to bring them one pair of blue jeans! And that’s only half the story.  Once the jeans make it to your home, the water used to wash them can double the amount of water used over their entire lifespan. That’s more than 2,000 gallons of water for just one pair of blue jeans.

What is a hip, clean, water cotton-and-skyconservation-minded person to do? On the one hand, it’s nice to have new, clean clothes, but on the other hand, there are already parts of the world that are feeling the pressures of water shortages. It’s hard to justify using so much water for fashion. The CEO of legendary jeans company Levi Strauss is tackling the problem in 2 ways. First, he’s using Levi’s economic and fashion influence to revolutionize how cotton is grown and how jeans are manufactured; growing and irrigating cotton is by far the largest use of water in the manufacturing process. Second, he’s not washing his jeans.

Say what? That’s right; Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh, designer Tommy Hilfiger, journalist Anderson Cooper, and a handful of other designers, fashion experts, and celebrities admit to rarely washing their jeans. Apparently when you wear one pair of jeans enough, they become incredibly comfortable, and washing them takes away a little bit of that “second skin” feel (not to mention all the little skin particles you’ve shed into them). It also wears the jeans out faster and requires water and electricity.

Levi’s has put a lot of effort into creating a more sustainable process for producing their jeans, supporting better ways to harvest cotton and creating more energy-efficient factories. It’s nice to see the CEO taking these ideas to heart and actually embodying them in his everyday life, but I wondered what he was doing to maintain his jeans between washes. Surely the CEO of a major company like Levi’s has some special tricks to keep him looking (and smelling) professional and fresh.

Turns out that Bergh does have a preferred trick to keeping his jeans from smelling: every month (or 2 or 3) he pops his jeans into the freezer for a few days. Doing so kills off some of the odor-causing bacteria without changing the worn-in feel of the jeans. I’ve never tried this myself, but several of the celebrities swear by it. And when he spills the inevitable mustard, red wine, or juice on his pants? He spot treats spills and stains with a damp sponge or some added soap or detergent for the tough jobs. Anderson Cooper, on the other hand, says he likes to shower in his jeans! I feel like this sort of counts as washing, but it also counts as conservation by getting double-use out of your shower water.

My personal favorite idea, and one that I regularly use for drying my washed clothes, is to hang them outside in the sun. Direct sunlight will kill off most bacteria on any exposed surface within a few hours, and both odor- and illness-causing bacteria alike will be removed without washing the jeans.

To wash or not to wash? Judging by the discussions on the internet, this is clearly a controversial topic! Opinions range from washing once a year to washing after EVERY use. I think it’s safe to say that for normal everyday wear for most adults, jeans probably shouldn’t be washed after every wear. Obviously there are exceptions, but if you can’t see or smell problems after one wear, you probably don’t need to wash them yet. I personally have a friend, Shoshana (*name changed to protect the dirty), who admits to never having washed her go-to jeans EVER, and she’s had them for at least 2 years. She wears them a lot, and they look great and don’t smell.  It kind of inspires me to try freezing my jeans next time…

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