Why Levi's Is Giving Away Its Trade Secrets

The company is sharing its water-saving strategies with rivals.
Levi's is celebrating World Water Day by giving away its secrets for saving water when producing its jeans.
Levi's is celebrating World Water Day by giving away its secrets for saving water when producing its jeans.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

Levi Strauss & Co. is giving away its special sauce.

The blue-jeans behemoth said Tuesday that it plans to reveal its strategies for reducing water use by 96 percent when making denim, so the tactics can be adopted by competitors across the industry. The announcement came on World Water Day, the holiday designated 23 years ago by the United Nations for celebrating the availability of fresh water.

“Water is a critical resource for our business, the planet and people around the globe, but usable supply is becoming increasingly scarce,” Michael Kobori, vice president of sustainability at Levi's, said in a statement. “We’ve long been committed to being water stewards, but realize more needs to be done. We’re setting competition aside and encouraging others to utilize these open source tools.”

Levi's introduced its suite of 21 water-saving methods in 2011, including strategies like buying only sustainable cotton and using less water when finishing and washing denim. Since then, the company has conserved more than 1 billion liters of water. If its techniques were to become industry standard, Levi's estimates they could save 50 billion liters by 2020.

"Making the jeans we wear is a very thirsty business," Brooke Barton, water program director at the nonprofit sustainability group Ceres, told The Huffington Post on Tuesday. "Levi's commitment to open source this technology means that others in the apparel sector have no excuse but to step up their game."

Levi's, whose CEO Chip Bergh famously eschews washing his jeans, said Tuesday that it plans to double-down on its sustainability efforts by 2020, the year many companies have set for overhauls in their supply chains and environmental policies.

By then, the company aims to source 100 percent of its cotton from farms certified by the nonprofit Better Cotton Initiative or from recycled material. Up to 80 percent of all Levi's products will be made with water-saving techniques, trademarked under its WaterThe Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals Foundation, it will eliminate all hazardous chemicals from its supply chain in the next four years. And, as part of an initiative backed by the White House, all corporate employees at the company will complete Project WET water education training.

The idea of allowing competitors behind the curtain in hopes of fostering higher industry standards isn't new.

As far back as the 1960s, Swedish automaker Volvo invented the three-point seat belt and promptly gave away the design to other manufacturers to make all cars safer -- not just its own.

More recently, in 2010, Nike released a tool featuring many of its environmental design techniques, for free use by other clothing manufacturers. Three years later, the company folded the tool into a free app called Making that draws data from the Nike Materials Sustainability Index.

In June 2014, Tesla pledged not to sue anyone who used the electric carmaker's patented technology "in good faith," in hopes of cultivating a bigger industry for rechargeable vehicles. The argument was that copycat companies would expand the market, and the rising tide would raise all ships.

Levi's move is less about increasing competition and more about sharing strategies it's already developed. It's a refreshing perspective in a time of water crises.