In May 2014 Levi Strauss & Co. CEO Chip Bergh was at an environmental forum talking about ways to save water when he came clean about his own dirty jeans.
“These jeans are maybe a year old and these have yet to see a washing machine. I know it sounds disgusting ... but I have yet to get a skin disease,” he said.
He added that jeans don’t need regular washings and that denim aficionados would say never wash your jeans.
The social media wave that followed surprised everyone -- especially Bergh. Some said it was gross, but others admitted they, too, were infrequent washers.
Me? I got excited. LESS LAUNDRY!!!
That day, I purchased a pair of light-colored boyfriend jeans from Levi Strauss & Co. and vowed not to wash them. I donned the jeans at least once a week: wearing them to the grocery store, out with friends, shopping, on an airplane a few times, even to my twins’ birthday party.
After about 25 wearings they started to feel a little waxy when I put them on -- nothing gross, just like there was a little film on the inside.
It ended up being eight months without a wash. I estimate a total of 32 wearings. They yellowed a bit, and they had a little stain up by the hip -- I think it was birthday cake.
I didn’t freeze the jeans (Bergh says it’s a myth that cold temperatures de-germ them), but, overall, the jeans weathered the eight months remarkably well.
I headed to the streets of San Francisco to ask people whether they thought they looked dirty -- and while some did point out the birthday cake mark, people were generally surprised that they had not been washed in eight months.
Levi Strauss & Co. estimates that I saved 130 gallons of water by not washing my jeans, and this conservation was the initial impetus for this campaign. The company determined that a pair of jeans is responsible for 919 gallons of water usage in the entirety of its life. Half of that water is from the cotton-growing and manufacturing processes. The other comes when consumers regularly wash the jeans.
While the sustainability aspect of not washing jeans appeals to many, Jonathan Cheung, Levi Strauss's head of design, said real denim-heads love the look of unwashed jeans. He showed me a pair of his own jeans washed weekly and a pair that had rarely been washed. The deep indigo of the unwashed jeans was much better looking than the flat color of the washed jeans. Also, the creases on the unwashed jeans matched those on the jeans Cheung was wearing.
"These are the creases I’ve made in my jeans,” he said, pointing out that they weren’t pre-distressed, but rather molded to his body.
To be clear, Levi Strauss isn’t saying you should NEVER wash your jeans. Rather, they want their customers to break the habit of throwing jeans in the hamper and wash only when absolutely necessary. Cheung and Levi Strauss offer this advice:
Sun and Air: Hang them outside for a few hours. This will freshen them up.
Spot Clean: A swift wipe with a napkin will remove most of a stain. Dab the spot from inside the jeans (opposite side from the stain) with a damp cloth that’s been dipped in a little soapy, warm water. Put a clean cloth under the stain while you dab.
Soak them: Throw them in a bath tub of cool or warm water with a little bit of liquid soap. Agitate the water, and let them soak. Hang them out to dry.
Line Dry: Let nature do the work. It will save on your energy bills and there are aesthetic advantages to drying in the sun.
Machine washing: If you must wash your jeans in the machine, turn them inside out, set it to a cold wash, and throw them in with the rest of your dark colored clothing.
Re-shaping: If your skinny jeans have stretched out in the knees and backside, put them in the tumble dryer for 15 minutes.