Levi’s Dockers Are Back in (Sustainable) Fashion or is it Eco ‘Jeanwashing’?: Behind the Label

Levi's Dockers

ColumnLevi’s, the iconic jeans and casual wear line, made its name as the working man’s clothing back at the turn of the 20th century. Valued by cowboys, ranchers, and lumberjacks, Levi’s eventually became an international brand that changed the face of fashion. Now, Levi Strauss is also attempting to change the face of sustainable fashion with its new Dockers Wellthread line. But is it truly sustainable? Or is it eco “jeanwashing”?

The Good

Levi’s is no stranger to sustainability efforts. The brand partnered with Target and Nike in the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, an “industry-wide group of more than 100 leading apparel and footwear brands, retailers, suppliers, nonprofits, and NGOs working to reduce the environmental and social impacts of apparel and footwear products around the world,” according to the group’s website.

Levi’s launched its Water<Less jeans line in 2010. While the average pair of jeans uses “42 litres of water in the finishing process,” according to Levi’s, the Water<Less collection “reduces the water consumption by an average of 28% and up to 96% for some new products in the line.” When a brand like Levi’s makes a commitment to reduce its water use, that’s a pretty big deal, not just in the resources saved, but also in influencing other brands to make similar commitments.

Workers rights are also a core issue for Levi’s. According to the company, they were “the first multinational apparel company to establish a comprehensive workplace code of conduct for our manufacturing suppliers.” Through its Terms of Engagement,  Levi’s has requirements “by which all of our contract factories and licensees must abide — including ethical standards, legal requirements, environmental requirements and community involvement.” There are also employment standards “that address issues of “child labor, forced labor, disciplinary practices, working hours, wages and benefits, freedom of association, discrimination, and health and safety.” In April 2012, Levi’s built onto these standards to further improve the lives of workers in factories around the world.

The company also joined the Better Cotton Initiative, according to the New York Times, “which focuses on sustainable-agriculture techniques, water use and economic and labor issues.” The initiative’s cotton farms in India and Pakistan “have reduced chemical use and water consumption by a third.”

Now, the company has relaunched its bemused brand of Dockers, citing that the Wellthread brand represents “the first time a company has fused sustainable design, environmental conservation and worker wellbeing into product development.” The brand seems clearly committed to redefining its production model…again.

The Bad

It may be easy for small-scale manufacturers to purchase organic materials and control production, but Levi’s is on another level, selling more than $4 billion worth of apparel annually and clothing production is one of the most resource intensive industries. According to Beth Greer, bestselling author, environmental health advocate, and healthy home specialist, “Most of the clothes we wear (unless they are labeled “Fair Trade” or “Organic”) contain some pretty toxic additives. For example, conventionally grown cotton uses more insecticides than any other single crop.” According to Treehugger, one clothing mill in China can use 200 tons of water for one ton of fabric dyed. And notes Greer, there are other issues that impact the clothing industry, “Poor working conditions, minimal environmental regulations, and child and slave labor are commonplace in the $1 trillion garment industry.”

And despite Levi’s efforts like Water<Less and Wellthread, the reality is those products only make up a small percentage of the brand’s offerings. Prior to releasing its Water<Less brand in 2010, Levi’s quietly launched–and then pulled–its Levi’s Eco jeans made with organic cotton. Most of what it sells is made up of pesticide-heavy cotton, with less attention to detail, furthering the “fast fashion” crisis.

While water conservation, like in the Water<Less effort is significant, reducing the amount of pesticides used on cotton is equally–if not more–important for a producer like Levi’s. And although the brand is clearly making efforts to up the quality of its higher priced items with the sustainability slant, consumers complain that core items, like the 501s and 511s have dropped in quality in recent years, with wearing coming early, and zippers malfunctioning.

The Questionable

Failed efforts to move organic cotton into the mainstream, Levi’s earns some kudos for not giving up the sustainability efforts. But is that the case with Dockers Wellthread?

Citing that Dockers Wellthread represents “the first time a company has fused sustainable design, environmental conservation and worker wellbeing into product development,” the brand is committed to redefining its production model.

How does the company achieve this? Levi’s claims it’s a combination of responsible dyes like cold-water pigment dyes for tops and salt-free reactive dyes for pants and jackets. After horrific tragedies in Bangladesh clothing factories earlier this year, the company says it’s also committed to improving the wellbeing of its workers. “I saw all these different nodes of activity in the company that were tackling different problems,” Paul Dillinger , senior director of global design for Dockers, told the Guardian. “The opportunity, to me, was to string all of these ideas together and create a systems approach to change.”

Dockers Wellthread “is built on the premise that once you become informed of the challenges of environmental responsibility and social value, you have to act to create change,” Dillinger told Women’s Wear Daily. “We see where we can adjust our social processes and also yield some great men’s wear.”

Dockers Wellthread are not your mid-nineties Dockers. The new iteration offers another incentive towards a truly sustainable fashion industry. At $140 to $250 a pair, the slacks are the antithesis of fast fashion. Encouraging a high price investment in a pair of slacks can help consumers realign their values around clothing and move towards a healthier relationship with their apparel and their preferred apparel manufacturers.

But still missing from the product is organic cotton–the one ingredient that could bring a significant uptick to Levi’s sustainability commitment. Will we ever see organic cotton replace the pesticide-laden fabric most of us are bundled up in daily? If Levi’s can’t do it successfully, who can?

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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Image: Levi’s

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