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Levi Strauss Develops Triple Bottom Line Khakis

Levi's latest creation - the Wellthread Docker - launched during BSR last week to lots of press due to the line's sustainability cred. It's no wonder. The line's designers challenged themselves to consider sustainability from the first moment of the design process, which led to some stark innovations in product durability, materials, and manufacturing. This remarkable feat is a great example of embedded sustainability, rather than that troublesome "bolt-on" sustainability that so often plagues companies that are trying to do the right thing.

What interested me the most about Wellthread is its focus on both environmental and social innovations. I wanted to hear more about how Levi Strauss innovated to improve workers' well-being. So, I sat down with Levi Strauss & Co VP of Global Sustainability, Michael Kobori, to get the full story on the social side of Wellthread and other Levi Strauss products.

A brief history of worker well-being

Worker well-being at Levi Strauss is not a new concept. In fact, the company launched the Improving Workers Well-being program way back in 1991. This supplier code of conduct for worker safety was largely a compliance arrangement. In 2011, Levi Strauss decided to go beyond compliance to bring on the next wave of change. They teamed up with Ceres to publish a white paper on worker well-being and supply chain engagement - including a framework for moving forward on this issue. They also launched five pilot factory sites (in Cambodia, Bangladesh, Egypt, Haiti and Pakistan) to focus on worker well-being. These factories were chosen because they are in "least developed" countries and Levi Strauss saw an opportunity to focus on worker needs. These countries also happen to be home to strategic supplier relationships for the manufacturer.

One of the first tasks for the pilot sites was to actually figure out the status of well-being among workers, so Levi Strauss set out to do a comprehensive survey to see how workers in their supply chain fared when it came to the UN millennium development goals: safe working environments, good health, economic well-being, equality in the workplace, and educational opportunities. Survey results from the five pilot sites will be published soon. Wellthread is produced in one of these five pilot sites, which is to say that Wellthread's social sustainability fits squarely in the social sustainability of Levi Strauss as a whole, and that the company's commitment to social sustainability is an active work in progress.

Third party engagement

In most cases, Levi Strauss contracts with third party factories for its manufacturing - a challenge for any company with a complicated supply chain. Kobori outlined a two-pronged approach for getting factory owners to the table. First, Levi Strauss appeals as a customer with an important request, second, they appeal to the factory manager's own well-being. "We approach the factories with this idea that programs that benefit the workers can have a positive impact on their workforce - something that we as their customer are interested in. We also made the case that these programs are also going to have a return on investment for the factory, for management."

For example, they point to the BSR HERproject, which found that for every dollar invested in worker well-being, four dollars comes back to the factory in terms of reduced absenteeism, reduced turnover, and reduced tardiness. When it comes to compliance, Levi Strauss relies on a network of local NGOs to make sure the factories are behaving as they should.

When I asked why Levi Strauss chose to use local NGOs - with a wide variety of compliance standards of their own - rather than an internationally recognized auditor, Kobori spoke to the importance of engaging local networks and communities for all their work in-country: "Of course [the surveys will reveal] some threads of commonality, but the needs of a worker in Bangladesh may be different from workers in, say, Haiti or Egypt. What we're trying to do is capture those differences. What we didn't want to do is go out with a one-size-fits-all Levi's program."

In addition to partnering with Ceres and BSR, Levi's is planning to publish the survey results so that the whole apparel community can benefit. They've also engaged the other brand customers at the pilot sites to see if they are interested in getting involved.

Knowing the staff at Levi Strauss, I can say with confidence that the individuals leading these these initiatives are proceeding with the best of intentions to make real, lasting change in the factories where Levi Strauss does business. However, I fear that the company will come under fire for "going it alone" rather than using an established worker well-being and audit program like Fair Trade USA's continual improvement model. Best practices and international standards like those developed by FTUSA exist exactly because real change is difficult to institute on a system-wide level. The best of the international standards place strong focus on local needs of workers, while implementing strong, system-wide protections and standards. It doesn't need to be an either-or. Nevertheless, I applaud the manufacturer for making a bold commitment to do what it can in its own backyard to make sustainable change. It's tough to do and the apparel manufacturer deserves credit for taking a difficult step to do the right thing.

Back to worker health and Wellthread

Since Levi Strauss is taking an active role in worker health and safety in all its factories, there's nothing extra special about the materials or construction of Wellthread in terms of worker well-being.

However, the Wellthread team did carefully consider the construction design and factory capabilities during the design phase. The pilot site where the team planned for Wellthread production lacked blazer construction experience, but the Wellthread team modified the blazer's design to make it similar to the denim trucker jackets the factory did produce, so that all the production could remain in one of the pilot facilities. This type of commitment to the team that's currently in place, rather than to an abstract design concept, is laudable and represents a big shift for an industry with little factory loyalty.

At the end of the day, Levi Strauss is on a difficult path to make big changes in the way our clothes are manufactured. It's tough, and it's also necessary. We applaud them for stepping onto that path and wish them easy travels.

[Image credits: Author, Levi Strauss]

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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