Are Your Blue Jeans Green Enough?

Take these steps for an eco-friendlier wardrobe.

August 8, 2011

Levi's wants you to line-dry your jeans. At least, that's what the company's new care tags tell you. Last fall, the company launched a new consumer-education campaign called Caring for Our Planet, in an effort to get people to reduce the environmental impact of their clothes, after finding that 60 percent of the energy used to produce, sell, and care for an article of clothing happens on the consumer end—washing and drying. Now, all their jeans include "wash in cold water" and "line dry" on the care tags, along with "donate to Goodwill," so worn-out jeans won't end up in a landfill. But another environmental expert suggests that a stop at Goodwill before you buy those jeans may be a better way to go.

THE DETAILS:Linda Greer, PhD, senior scientist at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, heads up the Clean by Design Initiative, a program launched to help clothing designers and manufacturers address the large sources of pollution associated with the fashion industry, and says there's a little bit more to it than that. "The finding from Levi's is consistent with other life-cycle analyses on clothing, and it's accurate for things you wear all the time, like socks and underwear" but, she adds, "for people like my teenage daughter, who has 12 pairs of blue jeans, you're not washing those once or twice a week."


Greer says placing the responsibility on consumers for washing and drying to save energy ignores the large quantities of water and pesticides used to grow cotton, which jeans are made from, and all the water and energy used in the dying and finishing phase (when chemicals are used to soften the fabric or make them look distressed). After all, according to The Green Blue Book (Rodale, 2010), it takes 2,866 gallons of water to produce, dye, and finish a pair of jeans, about twice as much water as would be used to wash them once a month for five years (assuming they last that long). The textile industry can be hugely polluting to waterways, Greer adds. "This industry is a very large source of a category of chemicals called oxygen demand that's really deadly," she says. "When they're discharged to a river, they smother the river; everything in it is killed." In developed countries, wastewater-treatment plants remove these chemicals before they reach waterways, but in developing countries, where most textile mills operate under lax environmental regulations, treatment plants are too small to handle the load of chemicals. Or there may be no plants at all. This says nothing of the dyes, says Greer. "There's a saying that gets repeated a lot in China," she says. "'You know the color that's in fashion this season by the color of the rivers.' In my work in China, I've seen rivers of every color." She adds that the dyes are very potent and if a dye doesn't adhere to the fabric, it just washes off and is discharged into the rivers.

It's certainly admirable that Levi's is educating it's shoppers about the need to save energy while washing and drying clothing. And there are good reasons to do so, including a lower energy bill. But where your wardrobe is concerned, the greenest thing you can do when clothes-shopping is…not shop so much. The proliferation of "disposable" fashion, as it's often called, is due in large part to companies shipping production overseas to countries with few environmental and labor protections in place, says Greer. "There's very little you can buy that's made in America or in Canada," where environmental protections keep polluting factories from turning rivers red, purple, or green, she says. "Nearly everything comes from a country that has neither the will nor the capability to manage the huge volumes of pollution that come from textile mills."

Update your summer wardrobe with minimal environmental impact by learning how to be a smarter shopper:

• Buy recycled. It's not easy to nail down a perfect fiber, from an environmental standpoint, says Greer. "Nothing comes out as a clear winner," she notes. Cotton, while a renewable material, is the most pesticide-intensive crop on the planet, and polyester, which dries quickly and therefore uses very little energy to launder, is a synthetic material made from petroleum. "Even an organic cotton t-shirt still has to be dyed and finished, and even if you're using more ecofriendly dyes, there's still a tremendous amount of energy and water involved in the process," says Greer. The greenest clothing? Used, vintage clothing that comes from thrift stores, Greer says.

• Stick to the basics. "The root of the problem is the overconsumption we have in this country," she says. "What I urge people to do, if they can't stop shopping, is at least content themselves with things that are the basics." Buying high-quality basics, such as a nice pair of pants or a shirt that will last, will reduce your overall impact, and you can shop at designer-resale stores for trendy splurges.

• Line-dry anyway. Regardless of where you buy your clothes, you can still save tons of energy by line-drying and washing in cold water, as Levi's suggests. For tips on setting up an indoor or an outdoor clothing line, read Clothesline 101.

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