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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.