In Unearthed, Gen Z climate-change activists discuss some of the most pressing issues facing our planet — and reveal what you can do to help make a real difference.
According to Levi Strauss & Company itself, that pair of jeans — from the cotton field to the department store — consumes more than 900 gallons of water during its lifetime. That's enough to fill about 15 spa-size bathtubs.
But the water waste doesn't stop when that denim hits the store shelves. If you wash your jeans regularly in your washing machine, you're using another 19 gallons of water per load — the equivalent of four of those blue office water coolers. If you're washing between five and six loads per week, this can add up to more than 5,000 gallons of water per year.
And that's where you can take control with one simple change: Stop washing your jeans.
'Conserving water starts with us'
This is the tagline for Shreya Ramachandran's nonprofit, the Grey Water Project, which she founded in 2016 as a middle school student in Fremont, Calif. Today, as a freshman at Stanford University, Ramachandran — who has been recognized globally for her hard work, including with the Children's Climate Prize 2019 and as a National Geographic Young Explorer — is on a mission to educate people about how to conserve water.
"A lot of people think that what they do won't make a difference," Ramachandran tells Yahoo Life. "They think, 'I'm just one person. What effect will I have?' Well, everybody's actions matter." And not washing your jeans, she agrees, is a good start.
"It requires you to think about it and develop a new habit," explains Ramachandran.
But why must we conserve water, anyway, and where has it all gone?
That's the question Newsha K. Ajami, chief research strategy and development officer for the Earth and Environmental Sciences Area at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in California, is asking.
"Water is an essential resource that we cannot live without," Ajami, who's recognized internationally as a leader in urban water strategy, tells Yahoo Life. "It's about rethinking how we use and reuse water. This is not just about the utilities. It's about what we do in our own homes as well."
A new study found that the mega-drought in the western U.S. is the worst it has been in 1,200 years, with a lead author telling NPR that roughly one-fifth of that current drought — which is shrinking reservoirs, depleting aquifers, lowering rivers and contributing to wildfires — can be attributed to human-caused climate change.
According to Levi's 2025 Water Action Strategy, which aims to save water on the manufacturing end, "By 2030, an estimated 45 cities worldwide (that’s nearly 470 million people) will be categorized as high-stress — which means the demand for water is higher than what’s available."
And so it bears repeating, say activists, to focus on what you can control. "It's about reducing our impact," Ajami says, meaning, for example, by being aware about how much water you use every day. "Water consumption should be at the heart of every discussion we're having because water is a limited resource," Ajami says. "The less we use, the less we pollute and the more we can leave for our ecosystem to survive."
Annie Mills, a young entrepreneur in the U.K. who received a Circular Economy Award for her final year projects, including one about how to save water, tells Yahoo Life, "I don't think many people know there's an issue, really, with water.”
Mills references an article in The Guardian, "England could run short of water within 25 years," and says that one of the issues is that water is very cheap in many parts of the world, including the United States and Europe. "So," she adds, "saving water is not incentivized."
How you can do your part to save water — and extend the life of your jeans while you're at it
Fortunately, Ajami says, today's new washing machines are designed specifically to be high-efficient because they don't use as much water. (Energy Star states that, on average, one if its certified washers uses 14 gallons of water per load, while a standard washing machine uses 20 gallons of water per load.)
“Say, if you go to Best Buy, they'll sell you a high efficiency washing machine," Ajami explains. "So, that transition has happened. But when it comes to grey water reuse, this hasn't happened yet." Grey water, Ramachandran says, is “lightly used water from sinks, showers, baths, and laundries," which (as long as you don't use borax or boron) can be reused to water lawns and plants. "Using environmentally friendly soaps and detergents when you're reusing grey water is super important," says Ramachandran.
But back to those beloved jeans: They are particularly suited to hold a bit of grime, so letting them go for a while is an easy way to cut back on water usage.
In fact, Chip Bergh, president and CEO of Levi Strauss & Co., told ABC News a while back even he has gone a full year without washing his personal Levi's, noting that doing so not only saves water, but gives his denim the gift of longevity. “And, when my jeans really need a wash, I do it the old fashioned way: I hand-wash them and hang-dry them,” he noted on the Levi's website. “Ask my wife – I really do."
While not everyone is on board with never washing those dungarees (especially when they start to stink — although a classic study found the bacteria level remained the same for 15 months), there are plenty of suggestions out there about how to care for them instead of constant washings — whether it's spritzing them with a natural fabric freshener, hand-washing in cold water and hanging to dry, airing out by storing them on a hook instead of in a drawer, or decreasing washings to just twice a year. Finally, consider buying second-hand jeans instead of new ones, which will help you not support the water-wasting manufacturing process at the start of a pair's life, too.