NEW YORK (MainStreet) —Mapping out environmental supply chains may not be the sexiest way to promote a new product. But some big brands are finding that sharing these stories offers a unique way to engage their customers in the making, use, and afterlife of their products.

“Brands are opening up about their supply chains in order to gain trust from customers who are concerned about their own health, the conditions of workers, and the environmental practices of their suppliers,” said Frank Millero, an industrial designer and visiting Sustainability and Production professor at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. “These concerned customers are motivated by different reasons, but the commonality is that they desire more information about the origins and manufacturing processes of the products they buy and use. I think that as the food industry has become more transparent, people are applying that scrutiny to other products as well.”

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Patagonia was one of the first companies to incorporate life-cycle storytelling into its brand narrative. In 2008, the California-based outerwear company launched the Footprint Chronicles, an interactive microsite that tracked five of its most popular products across a world map, from raw material to retail.

According to Fast Company, the Footprint Chronicles was the end result of a year-long project that had Patagonia employees traveling the globe to document each step of the five products’ supply chains – from yarn spinners in Thailand, to footwear factories in China, to fiber manufacturing in North Carolina. What was remarkable about the project was that Patagonia shared both its good and bad findings – like the fact that some of its manufacturing generated environmentally toxic by-products like perfluoro-octanoic acid (PFOA). The finding sparked consumer outrage, and Patagonia vowed to ban PFOA in its products.

Levi Strauss has also attempted to share the stories behind its products. In 2006, the company commissioned a scientific life-cycle assessment of its famous Levi’s 501 jean and Docker’s Original Khaki. Highlights from the study were illustrated into a comic, which was then posted to the company’s website.

One of the assessment’s findings was that a large portion of Levi’s environmental impact came from water use – approximately 42 liters in the finishing process alone. So in 2010, the company released a new WaterLess collection, which used the same materials and techniques as traditional jeans but utilized up to 96% less water in the finishing process.

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Perhaps the most interesting finding in Levi’s assessment was that the majority of a product’s water impact comes from frequent washes during the consumer use phase. Levi’s used this finding as an opportunity to involve customers in the company’s journey to greater sustainability. But rather than suggest incremental change, the company took an extreme approach, advising customers to stop washing their jeans and instead freeze them to kill germs and odors. Levi’s even got its employees involved, challenging them to wear the same pair of jeans five days in a row without washing them, then asking them to post photos each day on Instagram and Flickr. The campaign went viral, sparking debate about the merits of washing jeans and bringing closet “jean-freezers” out of the woodwork.

Similarly, H&M’s latest Conscious Actions Report revealed that 36% of its garments’ climate impact comes from washing and drying. The Swedish retailer has since partnered with global care standard company Ginetex to develop a new “clevercare” label, to help consumers care for their garments in a more environmentally-friendly way. For instance, the label advises customers that by reducing their washing temperature from 60 to 40 degrees, they can cut their energy use by 41%.

Women’s clothing retailer Eileen Fisher takes consumer responsibility a step further, encouraging their customers to mend and repair clothing that has been damaged. Not only does the company have a free clothing repair service, but it also offers educational content on mending, from step-by-step guides on hand washing sweaters to instructional videos on sewing a button.

“The ultimate expression of sustainability is to be able to continue to wear an existing garment as opposed to replacing it with a new one,” said Jim Gundell, Eileen Fisher’s Co-Chief Operating Officer and Facilitating Leader, on Ampersand, the company’s quarterly social responsibility journal.

Once a garment is beyond repair, Eileen Fisher allows customers to give items a second life through its Green Eileen recycling initiative. Starting this month, customers can return gently used clothing to Eileen Fisher retail locations in exchange for a tax receipt and $5 in-store credit. Used clothing is then sold through Green Eileen retail locations in New York and Washington, D.C. with sales benefitting non-profit groups that empower women and girls.

Patagonia also has an in-store recycling program through its Common Threads Initiative, along with a dedicated eBay storefront for customers to buy used and sell what they don’t need. Patagonia makes clear that while it carries responsibility for sustainable production, its customers carry responsibility for sustainable use and disposal. Through calls to action, Patagonia encourages its customers to “become partners” in its mission. “Every new thing carries an environmental cost no matter how thoughtfully it's made,” reads the site. “Together, we can reduce our environmental footprint.”

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