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How Patagonia, Levi Strauss Connect with Consumers Through Sustainability


Last week the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco hosted a headliner for sustainable business enthusiasts: Chip Bergh, CEO, Levi Strauss & Co. and Rick Ridgeway, VP of Environmental Affairs at Patagonia in conversation with Greg Dalton, Founder of Climate One. The subject of the talk was Clean Clothes - What lies ahead for product labeling and making the $200 billion U.S. clothing industry more sustainable?

Both Patagonia and Levi Strauss boast impressive, sector-leading environmental initiatives to lower their industry's impact. However, it turns out that both companies' green stories are tightly interwoven with their customer engagement.

Levi Strauss and Patagonia engage with consumers on sustainability issues and incorporate their feedback into future iterations of their sustainability programs. Through this customer engagement each company has found the key to ensuring that that sustainability initiatives boost the bottom line. Here's how they do it.

Include customers in conversations about the products you make

Two Black Fridays ago, Patagonia made headlines the world over with its full page ad in the New York Times urging customers: Don't buy this jacket, which asked consumers not to buy new when old would do. When questioned about the impetus for this campaign, which would seem to be at odds with the retail apparel business's drive to sell more product, Rick Ridgeway said, "The recession was starting to hit hard. It was an important shift. People were investing in more expensive products that would last a long time, rather than disposables. We wanted to engage with these people – these were our people. Engaging around quality products is a great way to lower the impact of our products." Patagonia was able to find a core segment of their customer base who values high-quality, well made goods and strengthen their relationships with these consumers. They also managed to educate that group and the larger population of NYT (and blogs about the NYT) readers about the environmental dangers of fast fashion.

Levi Strauss found cause to engage with consumers when they conducted a life cycle assessment of their products and realized that 60 percent of the embedded energy and 40 percent of the embedded water use in a pair of jeans came from washing them at home. Levi Strauss has been able to parlay that information into a few cool initiatives designed to engage with customers: back in 2009, they released updated care tags to encourage people to wash their jeans in cold water, line dry them, and donate them at the end of their natural lives. More recently, they launched the Water<Less campaign, pairing a product line which boasts drastically reduced water usage with a consumer education campaign.

Both organizations have used sustainable products and timely advertising campaigns as a medium for connecting with consumers about their products. They walk the fine line between educating and engaging and, in both cases, have managed to create some loyal fans along the way.

Reduce environmental footprint while maintaining performance

Patagonia, in particular, struggles with providing high-performance gear that contains potentially harmful materials. When speaking about Patagonia's Footprint Chronicles, which showcase the good, the bad and the ugly within Patagonia's supply chain, Ridgeway said, "We started to wonder if we should even been making a product because it’s that bad... This is a tension that goes on every day in our company. There isn’t an apparel company in the world that considers environmental issues that doesn’t face this issue. We like to dialogue with customers because some of these issues are so thorny that you can’t address them without help."

In the case of Patagonia, a particularly toxic waterproofing agent caused these introspections. The company used the Footprint Chronicles to share the information it had gathered about the negative environmental impacts of this substance. Customers agreed that the best course of action is to continue using it, while searching for a better solution that will provide the same performance.

Consider brand value at product end-of-life

It can be difficult to talk about what happens when a treasured object becomes a piece of garbage. Moderator Greg Dalton wondered if a focus on material re-capture would have a negative impact on the brand. Said Chip Bergh, "I don’t think so. I think it enhances the brand because it speaks to the long-term quality. Many consumers feel good about the program because it speaks to the long term value of the product." Consumers appreciate that their goods are so valuable they are worth talking about when they become closer to trash than treasure.

Both organizations have initiatives dedicated to collecting products at the end of their useful lives. Patagonia has the Common Threads Initiative, to make it easier to repair, recycle or regift. Levi Strauss has the Goodwill initiative mentioned above - each care tag includes a reminder to donate products at the end of their useful lives.

Encourage transparency for all

Both leaders spoke highly of a growing European movement to create nutrition-style labels for apparel which showcase the environmental and social impact of that garment for prospective buyers. Levi Strauss was recently part of a trial in France. "We’re believers in it," said Bergh. "The more transparent we can be with consumers, the more they’ll care about these issues. The key for us is that it be based on science." The metrics used to create the labels must be clear, consistent and replicable for companies to get on board.

But when it comes to government enforcement, Bergh wasn't so enthusiastic. "The issue is that every government may mandate something different and then you have chaos. The industry should take the lead on what’s the most effective way." Industry leadership will mean that the label is something that is streamlined and manageable.

Ridgeway agreed. "Labels are inevitable. The challenge for us is to work with government so that the solutions that they end up with are not necessarily watered down or weakened. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition is advocating for something robust. But, it needs to be something realistic for companies to follow. A consumer-facing label that allows consumers to understand environmental social health impacts of the product is crucial."

Jen Boynton headshotJen Boynton

Jen Boynton is the former Editor-in-Chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and has helped organizations including SAP, PwC and Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. She is based in San Diego, California. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

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