Because many apparel production processes were developed as if water were an
unlimited resource, it can take
of water (about 47,930 gallons) to produce one ton of fabric, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Levi Strauss & Co., one of a handful of major clothing
brands working with suppliers to reduce water and energy
consumption, is championing a pilot program through which water is collected
and reused during the laundering process. While only 100,000 pairs of
jeans have been produced using recycled water so far, the company plans to
expand the system to other of its 100 contract manufacturers and its four
company-owned factories around the world, thereby shrinking the water footprint
behind its denim by an order of magnitude. Beyond that, Levi Strauss is
sharing its blueprints, so to speak, by publishing
a guide to water recycling
that it hopes other manufacturers will adopt.
Technically, the recycling system is not terribly complex. After laundering, the water is already sent through a filtration system to remove enough chemical and
biological components to bring its quality up to snuff for effluent
standards that Levi Strauss has set for itself (and which in some localities
exceeds local standards for wastewater). To enable recycling, some treated
water is diverted, further cleaned, and then piped into laundry machines to be
used again. Some machines use 100 percent recycled water, others rely on a mix of recycled and fresh water.
It's a great stride toward more sensible water management
policies. It's also a drop in the bucket—a big drop, but a drop nonetheless.
Fortunately, this isn't the first water-saving step Levi Strauss has taken—in 2011, it began changing the way it produces clothing and those
changes have saved around 770 million liters of water already.
The textile industry as a whole has been slow to innovate on water consumption,
says W. Gilbert O'Neal, president of the Institute of Textile Technology,
which works with the North Carolina State University (ITT/NCSU) Textile and
Material Research Consortium to provide research and consulting services to the
industry. "I would say Levi's has taken a leadership role, because you
don’t see a lot of [water] reuse in the industry," he says.
On the other hand, recycling water is not always a simple
matter of filtering wastewater and piping it back into an industrial machine. The risks are especially high in dyeing processes, which consume significantly
more water than laundering, O'Neal says. "A major dye house might be using four to five
gallons of water a day," he notes.
Because it is still fairly clear of dyes, effluent from final dye rinse baths can generally be reused, as a supplement to fresh water,
in initial baths. But if the contaminants in the reused water are high enough
to impact the desired color of the fabric, and the customer then rejects the
resulting product, the factory has suddenly wasted far more than just water.
In some cases, recycling water could concentrate certain contaminants,
such as salts from dyes, in the water, which could throw the energy equation
out of whack. "In parts of the world where water supply is not limited,
it's generally going to take more energy to render that water to a level where
it can be reused than it would be to purchase clean water," O'Neal says.
Of course, the cost of cleanwater is only going to grow in most parts of the
world, so forward-looking corporations must begin building systems for reuse
now. Plus, tracking the amounts and hazards of chemical inputs is just as important as reducing water consumption. Michael Kobori, vice president, Supply Chain Social and
Environmental Sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co., says water recycling is "one part of a broader supplier
chemical management program that limits or eliminates the use of certain
chemicals in the manufacture of Levi Strauss & Co. products."
has conducted a years-long campaign to raise awareness around the apparel industry's use of certain chemical groups, including nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) and
perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), that have been linked to
environmental toxicity and human health problems. A number of clothing brands, including Levi Strauss & Co.,
have committed to phase out the use of these target chemicals, which Greenpeace
claims cannot be removed using conventional wastewater filtration systems but can
be replaced with cost-comparable alternatives.
O'Neal admits many textile factories have subpar
water treatment systems that fail to properly contain those toxins, but says those with properly designed wastewater treatment systems can treat NPEs (used in
surfactants) adequately. More research is needed into the long-term safety and
viability of alternatives, he adds.
"When it comes to NPEs," O'Neal says. "You need
surfactants. You need detergents to emulsify and clean materials and
keep those contaminants from going back onto the fabric. So we need to
do research to find detergents that are more biodegradable and still
have the same effectiveness [as detergents that contain NPEs]. When
people call for the banning of certain substances, it has to be looked
at very carefully so that you're not throwing out good applications of
Photo: Levi Strauss & Co.
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