Back in 2007, Levi's did a cradle-to-grave assessment of the resources required for its famous 501 denim and found out something surprising: its jeans were practically made of water. The San Francisco-based company discovered that over the lifetime of its jeans, from the cotton fields needed to make the fabric to consumers' tossing their dirty dungarees in the washing machine, each pair used up 3,480 L of water, which is the equivalent of running a garden hose for 106 minutes.
There wasn't much Levi's could change about cotton farming or consumer hygiene, but company executives realized they could use ozone processing to reduce the amount of washing needed to soften jeans before they're sold â€” i.e., the wash in stonewashed. The result is Levi's Waterâ€¹Less jeans, a new line that hits stores in January. On average, the jeans, which will cost the same as conventional ones, use 28% less water in the finishing process. Multiply that by the more than 1.5 million pairs of Waterâ€¹Less jeans Levi's expects to sell this spring and the savings add up to approximately 16 million L of water. "It took a different way of thinking, but the results are kind of amazing," says Carl Chiara, director of special projects at Levi's. (See photos of the world of blue jeans.)
Fashion may seem low impact â€” after all, consumers don't use electricity or burn gasoline when they put on their khakis â€” but growing cotton and other fibers involves a lot of water and fertilizer, and a great deal of energy is needed to manufacture, ship and, eventually, wash and maintain the clothes that wind up in your hamper. Some 25% of the world's pesticides, for example, is used to grow cotton, and on average, 15% to 20% of the fabric that goes into producing clothing ends up as scraps.
One way to shrink fashion's environmental impact is through efficiency initiatives that reduce the need for water, pesticides and energy in the manufacture of clothes â€” just as Levi's has done with its new line. Using natural dyes rather than harsh chemicals can also cut down on the pollutants from prÃªt-Ã -porter. (Are $300 jeans financially viable?)
Some fashion pioneers are trying to push the boundaries of sustainability further by purposefully designing clothes that leave little to no waste. This involves techniques like creating a scrap-free pattern that fits together like a puzzle. But the overall look still has to be attractive. "The waste can't be more important than the aesthetics," says Timo Rissanen, an assistant professor of fashion design and sustainability at New York City's Parsons the New School for Design. "It should still be about designing beautiful things."
For now, however, zero waste is on the margins of design, and efficiency improvements like Levi's Waterâ€¹Less jeans are barely a drop in the bucket. That's why the most dedicated followers of sustainable fashion might want to limit the amount of clothing they buy â€” and make sure those choices last a long time. "It's easy to confuse needs with wants," says Rissanen. "I do believe in buying less and buying better." That may be the greenest design of all.
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 17, 2011 issue of TIME.