Levi's CEO Chip Bergh says 'no' to jean washing, parents say 'no way'

Levi Strauss & Co. CEO Chip Bergh told customers to not wash their jeans in order to conserve energy. Great idea, unless you are a parent, in which case the jeans might walk away on their own.

Screenshot from Amazon.com
This image shows a pair of Levis jeans on a model.

Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh may have both horrified and frustrated many parents who are trying to teach their teens cleanliness and good grooming habits when he said he hadn’t washed his jeans in a year. 

"These have yet to see a washing machine," Mr. Bergh said of his denim attire at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference conference on Tuesday. “I know that sounds totally disgusting.”

I have to agree that it does sound disgusting, unless the jeans have been in a drawer all that time with the sales tags still on and this was the first wearing.

When I was a teen my grandmother (with whom we lived) would often refer to the microbial population colonizing my little brother’s dirty laundry by saying, “If you wear those jeans one more day they will be able to walk to the washing machine all on their own!”

Watching the full video, it was clear that the jeans on Bergh were not making their maiden voyage, but had been “spot treated” and “aired” on occasion over the past year, according to the executive.

My grandmother would have given Bergh the same speech she gave my brother, and then handed him her yellow, rubber, kitchen gloves forcing him to perform the Levi’s walk of shame to the laundry room.

Bergh’s laundry revelation came as part of damage control for the company’s “Wellthread” initiative, when he tried to come up with an answer to the interviewer’s question about the high amount of water used in both the creation and maintenance of Levi’s products.

“Next, the Wellthread team made small modifications to each style to make it easier to hang dry the products, cutting out a big chunk of the consumer-use carbon impact that comes from machine drying,”  according to Levi’s website. “… the team found ways to cut down on water and energy use significantly. And that’s not just a boon for the environment; it also reduces the cost of the clothing for consumers.”

Sadly, instead of talking about the drying process, Bergh went to the well to talk about washing instead.

I know I am not alone in my parental angst over this interview as potential argument bolstering fodder for my teens since numerous parents emailed and posted this story to me via social media.

One of the things Bergh blurted in the interview that seemed to make parents cringe was: "You can spot clean it. You can air dry it. Believe me it can be done. I have yet to get a skin disease or anything else."

Please note for the parental record that the man said “yet.”

Whenever any of our four sons, ages 20, 19, 15, and 10 has ever suggested a pair of jeans worn by an active kid for several days were “clean” after a spot treatment the one word response is a resounding “NO.”

That’s as in, “No you may not wear those jeans to school another day.”

In my opinion, no pant fabric that touches a bike riding, grass sitting, school-bus riding, flatulence delivering body is going to spend more than a maximum of 72-hours of wear-time without being thoroughly washed, using detergent.

And that 72-hour maximum is only reached when the electricity and water have both been turned off, the nearby river has run bone dry, or mom, the resident laundry chief in our house, is out of town.

Bergh also tried taking the peer-pressure cool-kid route around the interviewer and audience’s objections to the no-wash idea by saying, “If you talk to real denim aficionados they’ll tell you ‘Don’t wash your blue jeans.”

Parents are not worried about “aficionados” when a teacher calls to inform them that their child smells bad.

I’m surprised Bergh went with the "Great Unwashed" theory because, according to his bio on Levi’s website, “Prior to joining Levi Strauss & Co, Bergh was Group President, Global Male Grooming, for The Procter & Gamble Company (P&G).” 

It’s a shame the more important Levi’s message about the company’s “Wellthread” efforts for sustainability and worker wellbeing was drowned out by the denim-washing din.

I would have been much happier to have the excuse to talk to my kids about the benefits of drying clothes on the line and taking in fresh-smelling Levi’s, instead of having to tell my boys, “I don’t care if he’s a CEO, his mother would tell him to wash his jeans.”

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