Rugged durability has been a trademark of Levi Strauss since its founder began selling the company's earliest products to California gold rushers in 1853. Now, current CEO Chip Bergh has a message that might make consumers who wear Levi products for style think twice: Stop washing your jeans.
That's right, Bergh wants us to keep our Levis out of the wash—and he's leading by example.
"In rough terms, 50 percent of the water usage is consumed by the time the consumer gets their jeans," Bergh said in an interview with Fortune that focused on Levi's sustainability efforts. "The other 50 percent is after the consumer buys them in the store and starts washing them all the time."
The sharply-dressed Bergh pinched his own pants: "These jeans are maybe a year old and have yet to see a washing machine. I know that sounds totally disgusting, but believe me, it can be done! You can spot clean it, you can air dry it, and it's fine. I have yet to get a skin disease or anything else. It works."
Bergh's austere washing strategy is a natural extension of the company's prominent push toward sustainable production practices. Earlier this year, the company announced a new water-recycling process that has already saved 12 million liters of water, and it has worked to standardize its techniques so other manufacturers can follow suit. This all fits with Bergh's explanation that sustainability harkens back to Levi Strauss' initial philosophy to "do the right thing."
Thanks to other new methods, including a way of making jeans that uses ozone and no water rather than water and bleach, environmentally-friendly products now constitute 20 percent of Levi's sales, according to Bergh.
Refusing to wash Levi jeans also matches the company's reputation for high-end, long-lasting products. Bergh contrasted Levi with "fast fashion" juggernauts like H&M, explaining that if you treat the pants right, "they will last a long, long time—probably longer than most people's waistlines." Anyway, Bergh said, "real denim aficionados will tell you not to wash your blue jeans."
You're preaching a noble cause, Chip, but we've got a question: Can you tag along next time we get shot down in a bar because of our stinky jeans?
Check out everything the CEO had to say: