Apparel doesn’t sound like a dirty industry, but its manufacturing has huge global consequences. Tanning leather often involves toxic chemicals. Making synthetic fabrics such as polyester uses large amounts of crude oil and other materials that release volatile compounds. Cotton-growing is water-intensive—and cotton is often shipped from the U.S. and Europe to Asia to make thread and fabric, then shipped elsewhere for cutting and elsewhere again for sewing. Some of our clothes have circled the globe twice by the time they arrive in stores.
Increasingly, environmentalists believe we should also count the costs at the other end of clothing’s life: the garbage dump. Americans tossed out 12.4 million tons of textiles in 2008—a number that has risen far faster than other sources of trash, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Our consumption habits were a lot more sustainable back in 1960, when we tossed out only 1.8 million tons of textiles.
As part of its participation in the Eco Index, Levi’s did a separate internal study of its own practices. As a result, Levi’s changed its transportation routes last year to make them more efficient and reduced carbon emissions by 700 metric tons. In addition to the Goodwill agreement, Levi’s also cut back on packaging, allowing only three pieces of labeling with the jeans—a back-pocket tag, a size sticker, and a price tag.