Charles V. Bergh is the longstanding chief executive officer and president of Levi Strauss & Co. When it comes to his own jeans, however, the boss of the iconic denim brand sounds as though he’s rather negligent. You see, Bergh has made the astonishing revelation that he has not put his Levi’s in the wash for a decade. But there’s actually an excellent reason for this, as the CEO has since gone on to explain.
Bergh started working for Levi Strauss & Co in September 2011; before that, however, he spent 28 years employed by Procter & Gamble. And while at the multinational, the exec – who goes by the name of Chip – worked his way up through the company. Ultimately, then, he became president of the group’s male grooming products department worldwide.
In addition, Bergh was in charge of Procter & Gamble’s work across Australasia, Southeast Asia and India. He played an important part, too, in developing Gillette, which the company acquired for $57 billion in 2005. And during his career, Bergh has both lived all over the world and worked with brands such as Old Spice, Folgers Coffee and Swiffer.
These days, Bergh is not just the CEO and president of Levi Strauss & Co, either; he also has a position on the clothing firm’s board of directors. But technically, the exec is relatively new to working with the denim house when you consider how long it has actually been around for.
Indeed, the jeans firm was originally started back in 1853, and its creator was a German immigrant named – you guessed it – Levi Strauss. Strauss originally hailed from Bavaria but founded the business in San Francisco after traveling to California. And it was in 1873 that the entrepreneur created the first ever pair of blue jeans. The pants, in turn, soon became known as the Levi’s 501 Original.
And from there, Strauss’ company only continued to grow. At first, Levi’s jeans were worn almost exclusively by laborers – particularly lumberjacks, ranchers and workers on the railroads. But from the 1950s and all the way into the 1980s, it became increasingly common to see blue jeans on many different kinds of people.
In fact, jeans arguably reached icon status in the 1960s and 1970s. And Levi’s was at the forefront of this trend – not least because the company had already existed for over a century before the denim garments had become a wardrobe staple. The firm’s Levi’s 501 jeans were still going strong, too.
And Levi’s 501 jeans are still considered the brand’s signature article of clothing. They also continue to be made with a button fastening instead of a zipper, since zipper closures had not yet been invented when they were first designed. Furthermore, the denim pants feature a distinctive mark that makes them easily identifiable.
Yes, as many know, each pair of Levi’s 501s has a leather patch on the back. The material is also emblazoned with an image of two people on horseback with a pair of jeans in between them. And it seems, too, that the individuals are trying to pull the pants apart – albeit in vain. This is a nod to the company’s original tagline when the denim was first designed: “It’s no use, they can’t be ripped.”
Naturally, then, Bergh himself has a pair of Levi’s 501s jeans that he acquired over ten years ago – so before he had even started working for the company. And, surprisingly, the CEO has since confessed that he doesn’t put the denim in the wash. Not only that, but he has also urged others to follow his example.
Yes, in May 2014 Bergh revealed that he is not a fan of using a washing machine to clean his jeans. On that occasion, he was a speaker at a Brainstorm Green conference held by Fortune in California’s Laguna Niguel. And the stunning revelation came during a panel discussion in which Bergh was participating.
At the conference, Bergh was wearing denim that he’d owned for a while, and he used the pants to make his intriguing point. “These are one of my favorite jeans. These jeans are maybe a year old,” he said. “And these are yet to see a washing machine.”
Yet Bergh quickly admitted that he was aware of how strange his revelation may sound. “I know that sounds totally disgusting,” the CEO told the audience, who responded with a laugh. “I know it does. But believe me, it can be done.” And he had a good reason for his actions, too.
Firstly, though, let’s explore the more recent history of jeans. That surge in popularity during the 1950s meant that there was ultimately a large demand for the garments to be made quickly and affordably. And while jeans have remained a highly sought-after piece of clothing, changes in style and the rise of fast fashion have affected their production.
For example, over the years, jeans that are already ripped or faded have become popular. More recently, however, raw or dry denim has had a renaissance. Raw denim is not treated with chemicals, washed or changed in any other way during the jeans-making process, although the fabric can be dyed.
And in turn, raw denim produces jeans that tend to be quite stiff at first, meaning a customer should wear them in over the course of several months. This process therefore gives raw denim jeans a natural stretch and fade rather than any artificial appearance created in the manufacturing process.
What’s more, raw denim jeans supposedly lasts longer than similar pants that have been treated during manufacture. Because the raw-denim versions are better-quality garments, though, that means that they typically come at a higher price. Nevertheless, the innovation has proven popular with denim fans, who also debate whether it is wise or not to wash their own pairs of jeans.
But Bergh has made his stance on the matter clear. You see, following his admission at the Fortune conference, he emphasized his point in an article for LinkedIn. And the piece – entitled “The Dirty Jeans Manifesto” – further explains why the Levi’s boss is firmly against putting denim in the washing machine.
“The news created a hot debate and immediately went viral, receiving media coverage from outlets around the world,” Bergh admitted. “Now, everywhere I go, the first thing people say to me is, ‘Oh, you’re the guy who never washes his jeans!’” But the Levi’s boss knows that there has been precedent on the matter.
Bergh continued, “How to take care of your very best denim has been a subject of debate for decades – particularly among denim aficionados.” And it seems that his feelings on the issue have not changed, either, as he once again brought up the matter five years after that initial remark at the Fortune conference.
Yes, in March 2019 Bergh confessed that he has a pair of jeans that have now not been placed in the wash for a whole decade. And, interestingly, the CEO shared this news with the world as Levi Strauss & Co. launched an initial public offering – or IPO – for the second time. This means that the public are now able to purchase stock in the denim house.
Prior to its 2019 IPO, Levi Strauss & Co. was a private company for several decades. Once the firm went public, however, its market cap hit nearly $8 billion – a number that was a lot higher than had been predicted. Levi’s shares even went up in value by 33 percent on the inaugural day of trading before falling slightly within the following 24 hours.
But the fortunes of Levi Strauss & Co. were arguably overshadowed by talk of Bergh not washing his jeans. Yes, in an interview with CNN’s Markets Now, the Levi’s president reiterated that he has no intention of putting the jeans he has owned for ten years into the wash.
But why does Bergh take this unusual standpoint? Well, it appears that it’s down in part to the amount of water used when someone regularly washes their clothing. Bergh wrote in his LinkedIn piece, “We learned that an average pair of jeans consumes roughly 3,500 liters of water. And that is after only two years of use, washing the jeans once a week. Nearly half of the total water consumption – or 1,600 liters – is the consumer throwing [them] in the washing machine.”
Bergh added, “That’s equivalent to 6,700 glasses of drinking water!” Instead, the CEO encouraged denim wearers to abstain from washing their jeans so often. “My point at the conference – which by the way was all about sustainability – was to challenge the mindset that we need to throw everything into the washing machine after one or two wearings,” he explained.
And that’s not all Bergh had to say. “I made this provocative statement because I believe strongly in what our brands stand for: quality, durability and lasting products made sustainably,” he continued. “I also said it because I believe [that] we don’t need to wash jeans as often as most people think we do.”
Putting jeans in a washing machine can, in fact, actually wear them down. Bergh advised consumers, then, that if they choose not to wash their garments, there’s a better chance that the raw denim will last longer. So with that in mind, how does the Levi’s boss actually manage to keep his jeans fresh?
Well, Bergh went on to reveal that he will spot clean his jeans if necessary, just so long as “they aren’t a total mess.” He added, “And when my jeans really need a wash, I do it the old-fashioned way. I hand-wash them and hang-dry them. Ask my wife – I really do!” So, yes, Bergh doesn’t entirely forgo sprucing up his denim.
And five years after Bergh had written his article, it seems that things had not changed. Indeed, in March 2019 Levi’s shared a statement with Fox Business confirming that Bergh now has jeans he has not put in the wash for a decade. “He will spot treat them or, worst case, hand-wash if needed,” a spokesperson said, “but never [put them] in the washing machine.”
According to Bergh, we could significantly reduce the amount of water we use doing laundry through following his lead. “We knew that 46 percent of water consumed happens after the consumer gets the jeans home and starts washing them,” the CEO wrote in The Dirty Jeans Manifesto.
And Levi Strauss & Co. has come up with a way to combat this problem, too. In 2009 it decided to add a tag to its products for the first time, with the label advising customers on how to look after their garments to both maximize longevity and help the environment.
“[The tag] encourages consumers to be mindful when caring for their Levi’s jeans by washing them less often, using cold water and line drying them,” Bergh explained in The Dirty Jeans Manifesto. He pointed out, too, that denim fans have already been abstaining from placing their jeans in the washing machine for years.
And Bergh encouraged others to take up the mantle and wash their jeans less frequently. “Imagine the global impact we could make if everyone who wears jeans significantly reduced the number of times [they] go into the washing machine?” he wrote. “Not only will the planet be better off, but so will your denim!”
Plus, Bergh revealed, he had divulged the fact that he doesn’t put his denim in the wash in order to get people talking. “While most CEOs wouldn’t show up to an interview in jeans ‒ let alone unwashed jeans ‒ now you know why I did,” he wrote. The businessman added that the revelation was designed “to provoke everyone to think hard about their laundry habits – especially with their jeans.”
And, interestingly, Levi Strauss & Co. is attempting to lower water waste in other ways. That’s right: the iconic denim company isn’t just relying on educating its customers about the subject. In 2011, you see, the firm also launched a product line called Levi’s WaterLess – one that massively cuts down water use during the manufacturing process.
Indeed, as much as 96 percent of water used in the making of jeans can be reduced thanks to Levi’s WaterLess process. And from 2011 to 2014, the company saved more than 203 million gallons of H20 this way. Bergh explained in The Dirty Jeans Manifesto that this quantity is “more than all of the drinking water the City of New York consumes in a month.”
Plus, Levi’s has teamed up with the World Wildlife Fund and brands including IKEA in support of the Better Cotton Initiative. This program supports ecological farming of cotton and helps to decrease the amount of water needed to grow the plant. As Bergh explained, the company is therefore focusing on its “carbon footprint” – and helping consumers to reduce theirs.
Evidently, then, Bergh is passionate about not letting his jeans go in the washing machine. But that isn’t the only hot denim-related debate the Levi’s boss has tangled with. In March 2019, you see, he also weighed in on the notion of putting your jeans in the freezer.
Some aficionados have claimed that freezing your jeans is an alternative to washing them. In fact, in 2011 The New York Times even reported that founder Strauss had encouraged customers to place their jeans in the freezer. In essence, this process could destroy the bacteria that causes the denim to become malodorous.
But Bergh debunked the theory once and for all during an interview with Alison Kosik on CNN’s Markets Now, insisting that it is nothing but a myth. “That’s an old wives’ tale,” he declared while promoting the benefits of abstaining from washing your jeans. “It does not work.”