Mr. Green Jeans: Levi’s Detoxifies Its Supply Chain

After coming under fire from a major environmental group, Levi Strauss moves to clean up its production process. Will other clothing manufacturers follow suit?

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Back in early December, the environmental group Greenpeace released a pair of studies on the toxic pollution that accompanies the manufacturing of some of fashion’s most popular companies. The reports, entitled “Toxic Threads: The Big Fashion Stitch-Up” and “Toxic Threads: Under Wraps,” found that clothes from major brands like Levi Strauss and Calvin Klein had high levels of phthalates—industrial chemicals that have been linked to development problems and cancer—and nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), which are dangerous to aquatic animals.

That Greenpeace would put out a report condemning the fashion industry for contaminating the water supplies near clothing factories isn’t shock—the group regularly sounds the alarm on the pollution associated with industries of all kinds. But the rapid response by one company was surprising. Just a few weeks after the report came out, Levi’s announced that it would work to detoxify its supply chain, committing itself to zero discharge of hazardous chemicals from its entire production process—in the U.S. and abroad—by 2020. Levi’s won’t be the first clothing brand to make such a pledge—competitors including the fast-fashion retailer Zara had also committed to go toxic-free—but with net revenues of $4.7 billion in 2011, it’s by far the biggest and most visible company to detoxify itself.

(MORE: Toxic Threads Study Finds High Levels of Dangerous Chemicals in Popular Brands)

In a blog post after the agreement with Greenpeace was announced on Dec. 12, Levi’s chief supply chain officer David Love stressed that the company’s garments are “safe to wear,” but acknowledged the need to clean up the production process while promising change:

• By July 2016, we will stop producing products with perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) – chemicals that have unique properties to make materials breathable, waterproof, and stain resistant. This challenge is significant, considering there are currently no equally effective alternatives to PFCs.

• We’re also taking measures in the short term to fully enforce our ban on alkyl phenol ethoxylates (APEOs) – chemicals used in some fabric detergents. We’ll do this by enhancing both the training and auditing of our supply chain and ensuring our suppliers have the latest information on APEOs, highlighting where there is risk of entry into the manufacturing process.

• Additionally, we will pilot supplier transparency of discharge of hazardous chemicals in 10 facility locations and share the outcome by the end of 2013.

The San Francisco-based Levi’s has long been an industry leader on sustainability. I wrote a piece for TIME a few years back on the company’s efforts to create water-efficient jeans—denim is an unusually thirsty fabric—and last year Levi’s introduced a new collection of denim that incorporates recycled plastic bottles and food trays. But cleaning up the entire apparel industry will be a lot tougher. As Beth Hughes writes in the San Francisco Chronicle, Americans alone bought 19.4 billion garments in 2011, with a sales value of $283.7 billion at retail. And nearly every one of those shirts, jeans, dresses and sweaters was manufactured outside the U.S., in countries like Mexico, Bangladesh and China:

Name brands and companies like Sweden’s H&M rarely own all, or sometimes any, of their production facilities. For example, Levi Strauss owns factories in Plock, Poland; Corlu, Turkey; Cape Town, South Africa; and Ninh Binh, Vietnam, augmented by 663 contractors worldwide. Few of the contractors work with only one company. So even though when Levi’s makes a commitment to phase out a chemical, it applies only to its own production, the company says “we hope our actions” will encourage others to follow.

One way that others companies might be “encouraged” to follow Levi’s example: if customers decide that the way their jeans are produced is as important as how they look and how much they cost.

(MORE: Fashion: Why Green Is Not The New Black)