Something is blowing in the wind.
It just might be your neighbor's laundry.
Across the country, communities are getting all hung up about the reappearance of line-drying clothes. In condominium complexes, upscale neighborhoods and mobile home parks, some residents are upsetting their neighbors by airing their clean laundry in plain view. To the surprise of the laundry hangers, it turns out to be a violation of some local ordinances.
How strange that clothes and linen left twisting in the breeze should be the source of disagreement. For most of our history, clothes hanging out to dry were a fixture of manicured backyards and tenement blocks alike. Not until the 1940s did the modern clothes dryer become a common household appliance. But since then, line drying clothes became associated -- unfairly -- with low-income communities. It's an eyesore, say the neighborhood critics.
Bloggers and editorialist have jumped into this dispute, calling the clothesline debate a new dividing line between the rich and poor. Others suggest it's a sign of a neo-Luddite revolt against a society drowning in its own technology.
But anyone who sorts through the growing pile of arguments on either side quickly discovers that the rediscovery of clothes pins is the newest wrinkle in the far-more meaningful public discussion about how everyday activities effect global warming.
"Letting it all hang out" has always been part of the style and culture of my company, Levi Strauss & Co. But we really became line drying fans when we took a hard look at what kind of impact our own company has on the environment. We put ourselves to the test. We chose two of our products - a pair of Levi's 501 jeans and pair of Dockers khakis -- and asked a independent group of researchers to study how these products affect our climate. We wanted a real cradle-to-grave study, from the cotton farm to the time worn out jeans end up in a land-fill.
The study told us something we already knew: any company that processes cotton, manufacturers clothes in factories around the world, and then ships them to stores can't help but have a significant environmental impact. In fact, we've been working for years to establish environmentally sensitive practices in the apparel industry. We still have work to do and we are determined to make our products even more sustainable.
But what really surprised us was that nearly half of the environmental impact created by pair of jeans or khakis comes from forces outside of our business: growing cotton and washing and drying clothes. Fifty-eight percent of all energy consumed during the life cycle of a pair of jeans, for example, comes during the time a consumer washes and dries them at home.
Given the choice, we believe the vast majority of consumers want to make a difference. That's why the clothes pin turns out to the linchpin of any argument about whether the way we care for our clothes really makes a positive effect on our planet.
The classic clothes pin was patented in 1853 -- the same year Levi Strauss arrived in San Francisco. But its resurgence in today's neighborhoods demonstrates how our sensitivity to the environment can spawn simple, creative solutions to deal with the consequences of everyday activities.
The re-usable grocery bag, the stainless steel water bottle, and the recycle bin have become welcome parts of our lives because they are both practical and cool. Because everyone sees them, it is a way of letting the world know that little steps to decrease our energy use are easily within reach.
That puts the clothes swaying in the breeze in a nearby yard or on an adjacent balcony in a different light. What, in some quarters, might have been deemed unaesthetic might now be seen as a personal statement; a proud banner that says clean laundry can also be green laundry.
"Sunlight is the best disinfectant," said Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, talking about the importance of openness in a democratic society. In the same spirit, bringing our laundry out in the open will prove an invaluable step toward creating a cleaner, more sustainable world.
Note: Levi Strauss & Co. is hosting a "Care to Air" design contest to find new innovative, covetable and sustainable ways that people can dry their clothes. Design winners will be eligible for $10,000 in prizes. Learn more at www.levi.com/care.
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