Behind the Label: Levi Strauss’ E-Valuate Program

Green jean, baby.

In 1873, Levi Strauss & Company invented the first blue jeans, a durable pair of trousers that could hold up to the task of constructing America. The rest is history. Today, Levi’s 501 jeans are the world’s best-selling item of clothing, and the blue jean, whether skinny or bell-bottomed, has been a global fashion staple for as long as most of us can remember.

Levi’s commitment to social responsibility has similar historical clout. During the Great Depression, for instance, Levi’s instituted shorter work weeks to prevent the massive lay-offs that were happening around the country. Levi Strauss factories were racially integrated long before the Civil Rights Act mandated it. And in the 1980s, Levi’s became the first American corporation to publicly address the HIV/AIDS epidemic sweeping the nation. The fight against HIV/AIDS continues to be an issue central to the company’s not-for-profit Levi Strauss Foundation.

In addition to its social responsibility efforts, Levi’s has also been a pioneer in the world of sustainability. Their current eco-efforts are founded on an intensive study of the entire product lifecycle of their best-sellers – the Levi’s 501 jeans and Dockers Original Khakis – conducted in 2007. From this study came the idea to further evaluate – or “E-valuate”, as they call it – 11 of their most popular items using primary data across several categories: contribution to climate change, energy use, renewable energy use, water consumption, land occupation, qualified sustainably grown fiber content, waste generation, materials efficiency, recycled content, land transformation, eutrophication, and restricted substance list adherence.

The Good

From the product lifecycle analysis, Levi’s had a better idea of their strengths and weaknesses as a company. They made the decision to hone in on two key phases – cotton production and consumer use – and they have aimed to reduce their impact in the energy, waterchemicals, and materials aspects of apparel manufacturing.

By making the decision to focus, Levi’s has taken a “do less, but better” approach to sustainability marketing. Over the past five years, they’ve made particularly significant strides in the area of water preservation. In 2010, they introduced the Water<Less jean collection, which used up an average of 28% and up to 96% less water in the finishing process than traditional jeans.

“What’s different about the Water<Less collection is that we’re still using the same materials and techniques to create finishes for our jeans but we’ve substantially reduced water’s role in the equation,” said Carl Chiara, Director of Brand Concepts and Special Projects. “Sometimes, the way to achieve a more sustainable design is to rethink a traditional process and find a way to do it better.”

A typical pair of jeans consumes 919 gallons of water throughout its lifecycle, including what’s needed to irrigate the cotton crop, produce the pant, and wash them at home. For Water<Less jeans, Levi’s made simple changes like reducing the number of washing machine cycles by combining multiple wet cycle processes into a single wet process, incorporating ozone processing into the garment washing, and removing the water from the stone wash.

Levi’s also aims to change how customers use their products, after finding that nearly 60 percent of energy use involved in a product’s lifecycle happens after the jeans are taken home. Their “Care Tag for Our Planet” campaign instructs Levi’s owners to wash less often, use cold water in the cycle, air-dry jeans on a line, and donate old jeans to Goodwill, using innovative methods like a crowdsourced design competition for air-dry solutions.

The Bad

Apart from some backlash over a handful of tasteless ads, Levi’s reputation has been pretty pristine for the past few decades. That’s not to say their conscience is completely clean. In the 1990s, Levi’s was embroiled in a scandal involving factories in the Northern Mariana Islands, a commonwealth territory of the United States located in the Pacific Ocean. Though jeans from these factories were branded “Made in the USA,” they were produced primarily by imported laborers operating under “slavelike” conditions: 12-hour work days, seven-day work weeks, poor living conditions, payment well under the minimum wage, and an atmosphere of fear and control.

The high-profile case spurred Levi’s to establish a workplace code of conduct for its manufacturing suppliers. In 1991, the company released the first version of their Terms of Engagement, which spells out the ethical standards, legal requirements, environmental requirements, and community involvement that all of their suppliers and contractors must agree to and abide by.

The Questionable

Levi’s has a strong track record of operating responsibly, and is considered a pioneer in sustainability by many in the industry. The company has compiled an impressive body of information, literature, and resources surrounding its operations, and has been transparent both with its failings as well as its dedication to improve.

However, much of this information isn’t necessarily translated to Levi’s customers. The other day, I popped into a Levi’s retail store in lower Manhattan, expecting significant promotion around the Water<Less campaign, or the Better Cotton Initiative jeans shipped out just a few months ago. Within the store, I couldn’t find any information concerning sustainability, and when I asked a salesperson for information about their sustainable jeans, she said she had no idea what I was talking about. When I mentioned water, she said that most of the denim in the store was made using 96% less water than usual – a pretty big exaggeration of the truth, which is that the Water<Less process uses on average 28% and up to 96% less water than usual.

It was only when leaving the store that I finally stumbled upon a mention of Levi’s sustainable initiatives: a wooden “Care Tag for the Planet” sandwich board placed just outside the front entrance. Funny enough, the actual care instructions faced the wall, while an advertisement for a 30% off sale had prime real estate.

Levi’s is one of the few major apparel brands making waves in the world of sustainable manufacturing. That’s a major accomplishment, but it also comes with a major responsibility. Levi’s is missing the opportunity to educate a wider audience about the importance of sustainability by leaving its efforts out of its mainstream marketing.

A November New York Times article described a recent scene at Levi Strauss HQ:

After being briefed on the cotton initiative by the sustainability team, the new Chief Marketing Officer, Rebecca Van Dyck nodded her approval, then asked, “But do our customers know?”

They won’t if you don’t tell them.


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Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.