By: Michael Kobori, Vice President of Sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co.
As a company that’s been helping to pioneer on sustainability for most of our 160-year history, we’re excited to have the opportunity to share some of our learnings through this Sustainable Apparel Series in partnership with Triple Pundit and other brands. Throughout this series we hope to share lessons, provide actionable insights, and examples of progress that help us all to make progress toward a more sustainable planet.
I am often asked how I decide what to focus on within sustainability.
It’s a question everyone seems to have an opinion on. Leading environmental organizations are uniting to focus on what they consider the biggest challenge facing the planet: climate change. Governments can be subject to a revolving door of priorities due to changes in officeholders and public opinion. Companies often choose what they believe their consumers are most interested in.
For us at Levi Strauss & Co., the answer is very clear: We focus on our own biggest impacts and encourage others in the apparel industry to do the same.
Almost 25 years ago, we focused on the manufacturing process — becoming the first company to establish a supplier code of conduct that set health and safety, labor and environmental standards for our suppliers around the world. We followed that by creating the apparel industry’s first global effluent requirements for our factories and contract laundries around the world. Then we published one of the first restricted substances lists in the industry, setting a standard for chemical management.
These were all pioneering efforts, and they have led to industry-leading improvements for workers, the environment and our consumers.
But our real breakthrough in sustainability came in 2007, when we completed an environmental lifecycle assessment of two of our core products: Levi’s® 501® jeans and Dockers® Original Khakis.
The results of that study turned our thinking on its head. The greatest environmental impact isn’t during the manufacturing process, as we had thought and as many of us now know— it’s when the cotton is grown and when consumers launder our garments. All told, 49 percent of water use during the lifecycle of these products is during the cotton-growing process, and 45 percent is during consumer care. And when consumers wash then throw their pants in the dryer? That accounts for 58 percent of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.
So, our assessment gave us two new focuses – raw materials and consumer use – both made more challenging by the fact that those parts of the product lifecycle are not under our direct control.
We immediately became involved in the Better Cotton Initiative with other leading brands such as IKEA, Marks & Spencer, H&M, NIKE and adidas as well as cotton growers, cotton suppliers and traders, and NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund and Pesticide Action Network. The Better Cotton Initiative is, in our view, the most holistic approach to achieving more sustainable cotton for the 300 million people involved in growing the crop globally. Better Cotton reduces water and chemical use in cotton, improves farmer profitability and educates farmers on human rights issues such as child labor. Our goal is to one day have all our products use Better Cotton.
Around the same time we launched the Care for the Planet initiative to engage and educate consumers about how they can make a difference during the parts of the lifecycle that are in their direct control – the laundering, care and reuse stages. Our message was simple: Wash your clothes in cold water and line dry them. And do it less often. If you wash your jeans once every two weeks instead of once a week, you can save approximately 399 liters of water in a year and reduce your climate change impact by about 32 percent.
With our lifecycle data as our guide, we have been able to focus on the highest impact areas and make serious progress towards reducing our impact on the planet. And although we may see our greatest returns by engaging the cotton industry and our consumers, we welcome the chance to partner with others when we see an opportunity to make a difference.
We’re looking forward to digging into the key sustainability issues of our time and exploring a vast array of topics as this series evolves.
Here’s to making a more sustainable world together.