There is a good chance that when you read “denim”, Levi Strauss & Co will spring to mind. Not only because the brand has been around for 166 years, but because it has been grabbing headlines recently. Levi’s is one of 28 companies globally which has committed to reaching net-zero emissions by no later than 2050; it has been promoting its sustainability strategy in South Africa and; sadly, through third party supplier factories, it has been implicated in gender-based violence and harassment in Lesotho.

Sustainability must include safeguarding human rights

The Guardian reported on 15 August that women producing jeans for brands including Levi’s have been forced to have sex with their managers to keep their jobs or to gain promotion. These women were working in garment factories owned by a Taiwanese company, Nien Hsing, in the mountain kingdom. Levi’s, and the other implicated brands, responded to the allegations by the the US-based Worker Rights Consortium “by signing enforceable agreements with labour and women’s rights groups to eliminate gender-based violence for more than 10,000 workers at five factories”. In a press release, Levi’s stated that after extensive negotiations, the agreements reflect a shared commitment to protect the rights of workers, support economic development in Lesotho, and promote Lesotho as an apparel exporting country.

How your jeans impact the environment

A pair of Levi’s has a significant environmental impact across its lifecycle, including the use of nearly 4,000 liters of water, two-thirds of which is used in growing cotton. It requires an additional 42 litres of water to achieve that “worn-in” look of a good pair of light-washed jeans. There are also the pesticides; toxic chemicals for bleaching, deconstructed look and the dyeing… To understand the full impact, see Levi’s report here.

Levi’s loves local

Michael Kobori, vice president of sustainability at Levi’s visited the company’s local production facility in Epping, Cape Town earlier this month and spoke about the brand’s sustainability strategy and how it plans to transform into the world’s most sustainable apparel brand. The Epping plant, which opened in 1994, is one of only two in the world that Levi’s still owns and operates. The other one is in Plock, Poland. It’s in Epping that 6,000 pairs of jeans are manufactured daily (or 1.3 million annually). Through investment in labour and in technology, the factory has doubled its capacity over the last 8 years.

What is Levi’s doing to protect the environment?

Currently, the Good on You app rates Levi’s 3 out of 5, reflecting Levi’s ambition and ingenuity, “particularly the continued headway they’re making with regards to environmentally sustainable production methods”. The company got 51% from Fashion Revolution for transparency in the Fashion Revolution Transparency Index 2019. How does the company, which recently recorded a surge in net income, opened 53 stores in 2017, and saw a 13 per cent growth in the Asian market, plan to improve its ratings and lessen its impact on the environment? Impressively, Levi’s is one of twenty-eight companies with a total market capitalization of $1.3 trillion that is stepping up to set a new level of climate ambition in response to a call-to-action campaign ahead of the UN Climate Action Summit on 23 September. According to the UN, “The companies have committed themselves to more ambitious climate targets aligned with limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and reaching net-zero emissions by no later than 2050”.

To help achieve these targets there are already some strategies in place. According to Kobori, Levi’s uses cotton from The Better Cotton Initiative, the international sustainability program that trains over 2 million cotton farmers, in 21 countries, on how to use less water and chemicals, improve their yields, and increase their profits. In 2018, 68% of cotton used at Levi’s came from the Better Cotton Initiative. By 2020, the company aims to use 100% BCI cotton. The company launched its Water<less Project in 2011, saving water and last week announced a new strategy to further improve its water saving techniques. Its vision is to use only as much water as replenishes naturally, wherever the company operates. “Given the water context in many countries, we have to act quickly and wisely,” says Kobori.

During this Cape Town factory visit, Kobori wore a customized denim jacket, with embroidery, patches, and badges galore, which was the work of one of Levi’s Tailor Shops. These tailor shops are available in select Levi’s retail stores, where you can get your garments customized, altered or repaired, so that they are a perfect fit for you. This helps with the durability of the garments, and makes people want to keep them longer. “I’m going to pass it down to my daughters, and it will become a family heirloom – that, to me, is the ultimate sustainability,” he says.

What about the Cape Town staff?

The employee well-being initiative is an important pillar of sustainability at its Epping factory.  The company provides private healthcare for all employees, an on-site clinic and regular visits from a doctor. There are 480 staff members at the factory, and the minimum wage is 10% higher than the industry’s minimum. Levi’s also runs incentive programs, which mean that employees can earn between 15-20% more than their base pay. “The skills we require are dying skills, so we try and incentivise them.” This is done through apprenticeship and internship programs, which encourage better engagement with garment worker skills.

All good, but is this enough to save the planet?

Kobori believes that successful companies don’t choose between business performance or responsible social conduct: The most successful companies do both. One does wonder whether Kobori’s strategy shouldn’t include slowing growth and manufacturing fewer pairs of jeans. Lower volumes would immediately reduce environmental impact. Fewer jeans would reduce the need to outsource production to far-flung factories, like those in Lesotho. Smaller factories close to corporate headquarters could ensure better management of working conditions. Gender-based violence could be reduced, better it could be eliminated immediately… But, the production of fewer pairs of jeans implies there will be fewer jobs, often for people who most need them…. Like the 40,000 people now employed by the garment industry in Lesotho.

Quick Local Fact Sheet

• All products produced at the Epping factory go into the South African market.
• Over 80% of the garments produced at the Epping factory use the Water<less Project.
• 75% of cotton used at the Epping factory is BCI cotton.
• By November 2019, 100% of the water used in production will be recycled water.
• The Epping factory is very close to releasing zero discharge of hazardous chemicals.

Quick Global Fact Sheet

• In 2018, 68% of cotton used at Levi’s came from the Better Cotton Initiative. By 2020, the company aims to use 100% BCI cotton.
• In 2018, 67% of all Levi’s products used the Water<less Project’
• 2/3 of all Levi’s products are made in factories with the Worker Well-being program.
• By 2020, Levi’s aims to release zero discharge of hazardous chemicals.
• By 2025, Levi’s aims to have reduced carbon emissions in the supply chain by 40%, and in all owned and operated facilities, by 90%.

  • In South Africa there are two Levi’s Tailor Shops: one in the Sandton branch and one in the V&A Waterfront branch.