What could be more American than a great-fitting pair of jeans? Denim, whether as pants, jackets, dresses or skirts, is as popular in the fashion capitals of Europe as it is here (and maybe even more so).


Unfortunately, denim is also one of those fabrics that has a larger impact than most on the environment. From the growing and processing of conventional cotton, which needs pesticides and herbicides to grow (estimates are 1/4 pound of them for a pair of jeans), to the many gallons of water needed to water the thirsty cotton plant, to the potentially hazardous dyes — and more water — that are needed to color the denim blue or black and the chemicals used to artificially "distress" jeans so they look worn, denim ends up with a huge footprint. 


Levi's, that most American of denim companies, is working on the impact of its jeans with its Water, which tackles a huge challenge; how to reduce the approximately 919 gallons of water each pair of jeans uses in its lifetime? One way is to change the production processes for dyeing and styling jeans (see video below). Another is to get the thousands of cotton farmers in dozens of countries where cotton is grown to use less water. Levi's, along with a number of other companies taking part in the Better Cotton Initiative, are doing just that. Changes require training and infrastructure upgrades (like installing drip irrigation, which uses 70 percent less water and isn't subject to power outages), and monitoring of labor conditions. This requires time, money and education, but change is being made, one farm at a time. Levi's is now using this kind of cotton for 5 percent of its clothing, but hopes to ramp that up to a quarter of its offerings over the next few years. 


And the best news of all (for both Levi's and local water supplies)? Customers seem to notice. According to the New York Times, "The company does not disclose sales figures for individual products, but it says that Levi Strauss jeans that were marketed this year as less water-intensive sold faster than regular Levi’s that were similarly priced."


Check out the video below, which explains the various water-saving steps that go into the styling of a pair of jeans. In this case, an enzyme wash combined with using a machine to actually stone wash (with stones), and an ozone wash, which uses 1.5 liters of water instead of 42. 


The truth is that we love denim more than ever before, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who has half a dozen pairs in the closet; high-waisted to bootcut to skinny to jeggings (and don't forget those overalls, denim shorts and jean jackets). They do seem to go with everything. The good news is that this tough material, which was originally used by miners, farmers and railroad-builders can last for a long time, especially if you're just wearing them to work at an office.  
With some smart thinking,  the right production techniques, we can reduce much of the harm that often comes with the price of a new pair of jeans. 

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

Levi's 'WaterLess' program saves precious freshwater resources
The American jeans company uses less water than conventional brands as part of innovative program.