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Levi's: The Value of Jiu Jitsu Sustainability

Jan Lee headshotWords by Jan Lee
Leadership & Transparency

Levi Strauss & Co. CEO Chip Bergh recently stirred up the airwaves when he announced that his Levi’s jeans hadn’t seen the inside of a washing machine for more than a year. His statement, which was made during a sustainability conference in California last month, had just the right effect: It reminded listeners that if there is one overriding hallmark associated with America’s iconic blue jeans, it's sustainability.

But his admission delivered another interesting impact as well: It jump-started a conversation on how easy it can be to live sustainably. Granted, not everyone seems to have bought the idea of freezing their favorite pair of denim in lieu of washing them. But the simple, almost incidental mention of this unorthodox technique jump-started a conversation that has inspired jean-lovers across the country to come clean with their best sustainability secrets, and why decreasing the use of water isn’t so hard after all.

Levi's + jiu jitsu + sustainability

Welcome to jiu jitsu sustainability. It’s a concept that speaks to the essence of what the company is all about these days, said Michael Kobori, Levi Strauss & Co.’s vice president of global sustainability: re-inventing the way companies and consumers think and talk about sustainable living and sustainable products.

Jiu jitsu, a form of Japanese martial arts, “is the art of a gentle way of using your opponent’s strength and turning it to the benefit of your own strength,” explained Kobori. Jiu means “supple, or yielding or gentle,” while jitsu refers to “technique."

“Basically it is leveraging [your opponent’s power]. Rather than taking your strength and push against them, it is taking theirs and flipping it around so that it becomes your strength."

So when Bergh initiated a conversation on unexpected ways to care for and preserve one of America’s best-loved forms of apparel, he did more than chat about the durability of Levi's. He rebranded the discussion on sustainability by getting people to engage in a brainstorm of why such practices were cool -- and good for the environment at the same time.

“I think that was the great thing I saw when his comments went viral, is that people were talking about it," Kobori said. "On Good Morning America, the Today’s Show, they were talking about it. Millions of Americans said: ‘Oh, I can wash my jeans less. It’s not going to impact their wearability or their style, or anything; in fact it’s probably better for the pants …Hmm … That’s an easy change in my behavior that I can make.' And thinking of millions of people doing that, it will add up to something.”

Leveraging the Sustainability Message

This lesson didn’t come instantly for Levi Strauss, however, Kobori said, but was forged out of many years of searching for the right medium.

“For many decades those of us in the sustainability movement have really tried to engage consumers by giving them more sustainably produced products or services.” Kobori said they have been fairly successful in telling consumers about the mechanics of sustainable purchasing, such as why it reduces the consumer’s foot print, and why it’s environmentally a great idea. “But we haven’t touched their hearts. We haven’t really touched their soul or gotten them emotionally involved in the products. It’s an ironic dilemma, he notes, because in truth, appealing to the consumer’s personal passion is what Levi’s does best.

“We’re best at engaging consumers emotionally with our products. They love Levi's.”

Figuring out how to inspire consumers to love Levi’s jeans that are more sustainable has become an important goal, said Kobori, because the more engaged consumers are in what they buy that is good for the environment, the more they will feel an affinity for products that are environmentally sustainable.

Engaging and fun count, too

But for some, the ‘fun factor’ is important as well.  Research has shown that social media contests and other online interactions often speak to the very reason that people buy Levi’s: They are cool, and they are fun. Contests that encourage customers to commit to tracking and using less water at home and other online connections have helped teach consumers about the methods that go into making Levi’s Water<Less jeans. It also brings to light how Levi’s has been able to reduce water usage from 42 liters to one liter for every pair of Water<Less jeans produced. The reduction has not only revolutionized Levi’s production methods, but inspired dialogue with consumers about how they can reduce water usage at their end.

But just as different products appeal to different people, the concept of what it means to live sustainably can differ as well. A video featuring musician and actor Will.i.am and Levi’s Brand President JC Curleigh, which conveys the cool benefits of Ekocycle and Waste<Less jeans’ partnership in recycling plastic bottles, was able to connect with millions of viewers that were familiar with both Levi’s products and Will.i.am’s music. Meanwhile, another video put out by Dockers promoted the conscientious, practical accountability that goes into its Well Thread brand. But its real success, said Kobori, traded on the product’s high-quality appeal. “[The] emphasis really is on style and quality, [by saying] ‘Hey, these pants are stylish: They look good; they feel good; and they’re also better for the environment and for the people who are making them.’”


And Then, There's Scientific Analysis

But underlying each of these engaging messages, said Kobori, is always Levi’s focus on accuracy and validation. “It is super important, for us certainly as sustainability professionals, to make sure that we are absolutely able to substantiate through our scientific analysis and research all of these claims that we make as a company about using less water, using recycled soda bottles, and improving workers’ wellbeing.” He said Levi’s track record in workers rights abroad is as important to the company as its efforts in environmental conservation – and he knows consumers expect that.

“I think the consumer is very smart. And so even though we say, Yes, we want to make this fun and engaging, and we absolutely do, there are consumers out there that will watch and look for all of the data, the back up to understand, yes, these claims are true.”

And that, says Kobori is what Levi Strauss’ jiu jitsu sustainability effort is all about, because it means consumers are truly engaged.

Image courtesy of Levi Strauss & Co. 

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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