October 08, 2010

Levi’s Studies the Costs of Owning Jeans

Most of the costs of owning things come after you purchase them. In Fear of Nothing and the Clutter Calculator I emphasize the cost of the space taken up by the possessions you keep because this is the simplest cost to look at. For many items, though, the greatest cost is the cost of cleaning. This is true, for example, of clothing that you wear regularly, such as socks, underwear, and especially, blue jeans.

Levi’s did a product life cycle study of their blue jeans and found that, on average, most of the energy use of blue jeans happens at home, which basically means, in the laundry.

Our life cycle assessment helped us find out the facts about the climate change, water use and energy impact of each of these products.

To our surprise we learned that 58% of the energy and 45% of the water used during the lifetime of a pair of Levi’s ® jeans occurs during the consumer use phase.

The same general conclusion would apply to other jeans. What is more, if you use your jeans more heavily than the average, these percents are higher. They could easily be 90 percent if you wear jeans till they start to shred.

Levi’s is continuing to study this issue, in particular to find the best way to air-dry jeans after washing them. In the meantime, though, it has issued this simplified guidance for reducing the energy impact of jeans (which largely includes the climate impact): “Wash in cold, line dry when possible and donate used clothes to Goodwill®.” You may also be able to reduce your costs and energy impact by:

  • Washing less often. Clothes typically take more wear from being washed once than from being worn for one day. (That’s if your activities for the day are more like driving a car and reading blogs than pruning peach trees or repairing your car.) You can make jeans last more than twice as long by washing them only when they need it, compared to automatically washing after every day of wear. At the same time, you reduce the energy cost of wearing the jeans by more than half.
  • Waiting longer before replacing. If you wash jeans less often, remember also to buy them less often. If your jeans lasted 1 1/2 years, they may last 3 1/2 years with less frequent washing, so reduce your frequency of purchases accordingly.
  • Buying used. If people are donating perfectly good clothing to Goodwill and other thrift shops, it stands to reason that people are also buying perfectly good clothing at thrift shops. If you have a bit of style flexibility and can spend some extra shopping time, you can pay 80 percent less for standard clothing items like jeans and sweatshirts. This is not just a matter of saving money. By buying a used item, you eliminate the energy impact that would have gone into manufacturing a new item.
  • Recycling. When clothing needs more than a minute of mending, it’s typically thrown away, but there ought to be a use for the fabric. Levi’s made a point about the potential for recycling clothing by donating 200,000 recycled jeans to the California Academy of Sciences for use in insulation. It used similar insulation in its own headquarters when it was rebuilt this year. Cotton insulation has sound absorption properties that other forms of insulation don’t have, so I hope this kind of recycling can become more common.

The world is starting to recognize that the cost of owning a consumer product can be greater than the cost of manufacturing it. Sometimes this information comes from careful scientific studies, such as the one that Levi’s commissioned. With a better awareness of the costs, people will be able to make better decisions about what to buy and how long to keep it.

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