“From the way we make our products to how we run the company, we’re committed to restoring the environment. Consumers expect this from us, employees demand it, and the planet requires it.”

This is a very honourable statement from Chip Bergh, President and CEO of Levi Strauss and Co, the producer of the very famous Levi’s jeans.

No doubt good intentions were behind the statement, but the reality is that popular fashion brands like Levi’s are directly linked to the use and discharge of hazardous chemicals into Mexican rivers.

05 December 2012

San Pedro River Pollution © Guadalupe Szymanski / Greenpeace

In Greenpeace International’s latest report, “Toxic Threads: Under Wraps”, we show the results of water samples that were taken at discharge pipes used by two manufacturing facilities supplying Levi’s: Lavamex and Kaltex. Both facilities were found to be discharging a cocktail of hazardous chemicals. One of the facilities was also found to be discharging nonylphenol, a chemical used in textile manufacturing that has already been banned in many countries. This chemical is very persistent and remains toxic even as it works its way through the food chain. It is able to act as a hormone disrupter, accumulate in the tissue of fish and has recently been detected in human tissue.

Lavamex, one of the facilities whose discharges were sampled, is almost exclusively involved in the dyeing and washing of denim and it is already known locally for its pollution. The discharge pipe run 24 hours a day, every day of the year, spewing forth a river of blue wastewater. Lavamex uses a wastewater treatment facility to treat these discharges, but many toxic chemicals survive this process, as the samples prove.

How can a company like Levi’s, who has made such a public statement in support of protecting the environment, be directly linked to such brazen toxic pollution?

Sadly, it’s easy to explain. In Mexico, the manufacturing industry and the government keep the use and discharge of toxic chemicals very secret. Right now, industry is not required to inform the public of the chemicals it uses and releases. Information on industrial discharge, even when being investigated by the government itself, is very often considered confidential information. Anyone who wants access to this will have to go through a frustrating and complex official request process. Meanwhile the discharge pipes continue to gush day and night into Mexican rivers.

Conflicts between local residents and manufacturing facilities such as Lavamex and Kaltex have happened many times in Mexico, but the pollution continues. In one case a federal representative to Mexico’s Congress proposed an investigation of industrial pollution from the Kaltex facility into the San Juan del Río. Despite the alarming pollution described in his proposal nothing happened. The representative concluded: “these companies have become untouchable, despite the risk to the environment.”

Mexico is one of the largest denim producers in the world, and the textile and apparel industry is the fourth largest industry in the country. Although its exports were dwarfed by China for many years, since 2010 its share of the market has grown rapidly – driven in part by its proximity to the US. The growth has also been fueled by a global demand for “fast fashion”: where many fashion brands respond quickly to changing trends and produce eight or more collections in a year, meaning more new clothes and more hazardous chemicals.

05 December 2012

San Juan River Pollution © Guadalupe Szymanski / Greenpeace

Indeed, when we sampled Levi’s jeans and t-shirts we also found traces of hazardous chemicals in seven out of the eleven items tested. These chemicals break down in the environment to form the very same toxic and hormone disrupting chemical we found in one of our pipe samples in Mexico, and can be released both when the clothes are made but also when they are washed by customers around the world.

Time for brands to walk the walk

There is a sad irony in the fact that companies like Levi’s, who say they are devoted to making us feel good about our appearance, are in fact leaving behind an ugly toxic trail in the places where their clothes are manufactured. Levi’s isn’t alone in driving the toxic fashion trend, other brands that have recently been using suppliers in the same area of Mexico are Guess, Tommy Hilfiger, Express, Calvin Klein, Paris Blues and American Eagle Outfitters.

Many of these other brands make similar positive statements about their dedication to respecting the environment. Now they have a chance to put their money where their mouth is. Global brands like Levi’s have the power and influence to play a positive role in the industry in Mexico.

Around the world, more and more consumers, activists and fashionistas are uniting behind the idea that the clothes we buy should carry a story we can be proud of, not the residues of hazardous chemicals.

Brands can end the secrecy by insisting their suppliers publicly divulge what chemicals are being discharged and by committing their brand and their supply chain to zero discharge of hazardous chemicals. We are asking Levi’s to stand by its honourable statement, act on the problem of toxic discharge and rise to the challenge of Detoxing its fashion.

Now is Levi’s time

Thanks to people like you, we were able to convince Zara, the world’s largest retailer, to commit to work with its suppliers and take action to end its addiction to hazardous chemicals.

Levi’s, the world's biggest jeans producer, has yet to make a credible commitment to clean up its toxic habit or make public a plan for how it will work with its suppliers to release their pollution data.

Levi’s can change this, and it will if enough of us make our voices heard.

Join the campaign, and let’s give Levi’s 501,000 reasons to #GoForth and Detox!

Pierre Terras is Toxics Campaign Coordinator at Greenpeace Mexico.