When Levi's washes its jeans, it's not to get them clean. It's to make them soft.
So who needs water?
The manufacturer began offering a denim collection this week that reduces the amount of water used in the finishing by an average of 11 gallons per pair. The company claims a total of 4 million gallons saved for its spring collection now in stores.
The denim is still "washed" with stones, but the water has been removed from the process, and the number of wet-washing cycles has been cut by combining steps.
The early reaction to the Waterless jeans, according to Erik Joule, senior vice president of merchandising and design, is, "What's the difference?"
That's exactly the point.
"I think anything that blends fashion without an altered look, with sustainability and social responsibility, it's a winner, but sometimes there's a tension between the sides."
Parent company Levi Strauss & Co. is using this launch as a starting point for a conversation with its consumers, manufacturers, retailers and, says Joule, even its competitors about doing business in a more eco-friendly way. The hangtag that goes home with the jeans also encourages less washing at home, use of cold water and line drying.
A real greening of the industry — without the aesthetic change — could get people excited about buying new jeans, he adds.
There's an emphasis on Levi's men's product for now, partially because men tend to like a more rigid, dry hand on their denim than women — and that texture was easier to master with the drier process.
But development is under way for lighter, softer finishes, and the technology is being passed on to the Docker's brand to start work on khakis.
The Waterless project already has changed the culture in the company's headquarters in San Francisco, which has switched to low-flow faucets, for example. Personally, Joule says he keeps track of his own water usage at home: No more running water when he's brushing his teeth.