Drought-Resistant? The Future of the California Denim Industry

There are several troubling new realities emerging from the California drought crisis: We could soon be living in a world where Cinco de Mayo is celebrated without guacamole, where we have to substitute a generic Chilean White for our favorite Napa Valley Chardonnay and where a pack of trail mix will cost $18. Even celebrities will soon be forced to grapple with the horror of choosing between their 'passion for saving the environment' and their pristine manicured lawns.

These are dark and dusty times in California. The most serious drought since climate change brought an end to the Mayan Empire 1,200 years ago has left the Golden State's economy - and a large piece our nation's food supply - in jeopardy. As the state searches for answers, could an industry that has long been one of the biggest consumers of water actually become part of the solution?

Blue jeans are as California as D-list celebrities and billion dollar start-ups. First introduced to the world during the California gold rush by Levi Strauss in San Francisco, blue jeans became a symbol of Westward expansion, manifest destiny and pure Americana.

150 years later, jeans are not only the world's uniform, they also have the potential to once again be a symbol of the cutting edge, this time in saving the environment. Currently jeans (and the larger fashion industry), are a large burden on the precious California water reserves. But recent eco-friendly breakthroughs suggest that should the industry commit itself to new technologies, that jeans could not only be part of the solution to the current drought but could save the California denim industry in the process.

For most Californians, especially those angered by Governor Brown's move to exempt farmers from mandatory water shortages, the thought that jeans, or any fashion, could be a solution to their current misery is laughable.

After all, it takes around 1,800 gallons of water to grow cotton for a pair of jeans and an additional 800 gallons to wash and ready them. When you consider the fact that California is unexpectedly the nation's second largest cotton producer, that's a lot of water. A conservative estimate suggests that California's denim industry consumes 26 billion gallons per year.

How can a product reliant upon a cotton textile that consumes 1/1000th of all the water in California be part of the solution?

Welcome to the future. A decade ago, Blue Creations, a denim manufacturer in Carson began incorporating a new water-saving 'ozone washing' technology into their production cycle. A few years later, Levi's introduced their Waterless Denim Jeans using that same Ozone washing. During the production process, the typical jean goes through an average of 3 - 10 spin cycles in washers and dryers. To slash water use, both companies incorporated the multi-wash cycle into a single process. From there, it used this ozone processing to further reduce its water footprint by air blasting its jeans instead of washing them. The result? An average water reduction of 28% (up to 96% in some styles). After it was shown that the quality of the jeans was unchanged, the technology quickly caught on as other major denim brands such as AG Jeans realized its potential.

But reducing water usage by 28% was only the start. Understanding that a water shortage could prove ruinous to the industry and that cotton was the predominant thirsty culprit, Levi's and others began working on jeans made from plastic water bottles. Today several jeans companies have replaced traditional cotton with this new recycled material (known as PET). Launched in 2013, Levi's recycled 3.5 million water bottles in its first collection amounting to half a million pairs of jeans sold. Each year since, Levi's has expanded the line and says the jeans have saved a billion gallons of water.

Other retailers have taken notice as well. Nike has jumped aboard becoming a leading proponent of recycled materials in athletic wear. Singer Pharrell co-founded Bionic Yarn, a company that produces, tees, sweatshirts, bags and other products from PET plastic bottles instead of cotton. EcoAlf too makes their high tech performance outerwear from PET, coffee grinds and recycled fishing net.

Of course, this is just a start. While Levi's plans to have 80% of their brand products made using the Water Less process by 2020 (up from about 25% currently), PET jeans represent a minuscule fraction of denim sales and manufacturing in the U.S. But if California's water supply lasts them long enough to make the change, the decision to shift away from cotton to eco-friendly materials might save California from itself. With less than a few years of water remaining, denim companies with have to act fast.

Where would California be without its jeans? Unless the denim industry commits in full to these breakthrough technologies, that's a question that Californians and the 200,000 employed by the industry, may soon be forced to grapple with.