If you take fewer showers and don’t wash your hair — for the sake of the environment, of course — you’ve likely considered getting more lax about doing your laundry, too. Other eco-fashionistas certainly have. Earlier this year, Jandira Barone, owner of denim company Tristar, made headlines when she suggested a water-free denim cleanse — throwing jeans into the freezer to kill germs. Less drastically, a 2006 report commissioned by France’s environment agency suggested washing jeans only every fifth wear and foregoing the dryer and iron entirely.

Now, Levi Strauss is joining the underwashed denim talk with their new Water Less jeans. Debuting January 2011, these new Levi’s will, on average, require 28 percent less water to manufacture. Some products will even reduce water use by 96 percent! Ecouterre describes Levi Strauss’ new water-wise manufacturing process:

Levi’s combined the multiple wash cycles into a single wet-cycle process. Next, the denim manufacturer incorporated ozone processing to give its garments the washed-down effect sans water (when ozone decomposes, it reverts to free oxygen). The final touch? Nixing the wet stuff from the stone-wash equation.
Levi’s Water Less initiative seems a pretty significant step for the company — and one that I hope will encourage people to ask more questions about their jeans. After all, the manufacture of jeans only accounts for a tiny fraction of the water used to create a pair of jeans.

According to Levi’s own numbers, for example, about 11 gallons of water (42 liters) are used to manufacture a regular, non-Water Less pair of jeans. The good news is that, on average, each pair of Water Less jeans will save about 3 gallons of water. The bad news? The cotton grown to make those jeans — whether manufactured via the Water Less process or not — sucks up about 1,800 gallons of water. And that water use number doesn’t even account for the water waste due to pollution from pesticide runoff (as far as I can tell, none of the Water Less items will be made from organic cotton).

I’m not trying to simply discount Levi’s efforts here. I’m just pointing out that reducing the water used in the manufacture of jeans only accounts for a small portion of the eco-factors to consider when buying and wearing jeans. (For the nitty-gritty scientific numbers behind the water footprint of cotton consumption, read this 2006 study (PDF) published in Ecological Economics.) This is yet another reason why I like to buy my jeans pre-loved!

Must have Levi’s? Before plunking down the money for the newest pair of Water Less jeans, consider stopping by your nearest Crossroads or Buffalo Exchange to see if you can find pre-loved Levi’s in your size. The environment — and your wallet — will thank you.

Water-wise Levi's
Levi's new Water Less jeans will require a lot less water to manufacture -- but MNN's lifestyle editor plans to continue opting for pre-loved jeans.