Chip Bergh: Why Levi Strauss Cares About Sustainability

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Dan Schawbel | This post first appeared on Forbes here.

I recently spoke with Chip Bergh, who is the President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Levi Strauss & Co, a leading global apparel and consumer goods company with sales in more than 110 countries. In the interview, he talks about the importance of sustainability to Levi Strauss, gives some highlights from their recent sustainability survey, and why he talks about profits through principles.

Bergh is a strategic leader with a proven ability to build and grow brand powerhouses, bring new products to the mass market, develop innovative marketing campaigns, and capitalize on digital platforms to drive brand awareness. Prior to joining Levi Strauss & Co, Bergh was Group President, Global Male Grooming, for The Procter & Gamble Company (P&G). During his twenty-eight year career at P&G, he served in a number of leadership positions with increasing levels of complexity and scope.

Chip Bergh
Chip Bergh

Dan Schawbel: How important is sustainability to you and your company?

Chip Bergh: It’s an important pillar for us as a company. It’s an important pillar from an innovation standpoint, but it also goes all the way back to our values as a company. This company’s been around for 162 years, going back to our founder, Levi Strauss; the man, the myth, the legend himself. We invented blue jeans about 142 years ago. He was an entrepreneur—I like to think about us as the original Silicon Valley startup.

He, from the very beginning, was very big into giving back and making sure that the company always operated with principle and doing the right thing. As a result of that, sustainability in the broadest definition of the word—not just environmental sustainability, but social sustainability and everything else—is part of the fabric of this company. It is a very big deal for us, we’re very focused on it. We use sustainability as a constraint to drive our innovation program. It’s part of who we are, and I think more and more consumers are beginning to recognize that.

Schawbel: Can you explain your current sustainability initiatives and how they’ve helped your company while supporting the world at large? Do you have any success metrics you can share?

Bergh: Sure. Just a couple of weeks ago we launched an updated life cycle analysis of a pair of blue jeans. We ran the first life cycle analysis back in 2007, before my time at the company, and it was an industry first. It was the first life cycle analysis done in the apparel industry. It was done based on US data. It was very insightful. It gave us a lot of insight into both water and energy consumption that a pair of jeans actually consumes through their life. We recently updated the life cycle analysis about a month ago. It takes much more of a global look. We studied the life cycle of jeans in the U.S., but also in the U.K., France and also in China, where consumer habits and practices are very, very different. There are differences regionally, but the bottom line is still the same.

A lot of the water and a lot of the energy is consumed before the jeans ever make it into the consumer’s closet, but a significant portion of water and energy consumption happens after the jeans are bought by consumers. So we are focused on every aspect of the life cycle, including what’s within our direct control, which is how the jeans are actually made.

A lot of water is consumed growing the cotton. We work with the Better Cotton Initiative to work with cotton farmers to show them more sustainable ways of growing cotton. That’s becoming a more important source of cotton for us. Making a difference there. We’re very focused on reducing the consumption of water and energy as we manufacture our products. We have a line of products called “Water<Less,” which reducesthe amount of water in the finishing process by up to 96% . That has saved, over the last four years, about one billion liters of water in the actual manufacture of a pair of jeans. Just for perspective, that’s about enough to provide drinking water for the city of New York for more than a month. It’s not inconsequential, that’s a lot of water. Water is one of the most precious commodities on earth these days.

We’ve also committed a lot of energy—no pun intended—a lot of time and effort communicating with consumers about things that they can do to significantly reduce the use of water and energy in the caring of their jeans. I made what is now the quote that’s gone around the world a couple hundred times saying, “Never wash your jeans.” I never actually said, “never,” but it was a comment that I made at a sustainability conference about a year ago to try to wake the consumer up from auto pilot. You don’t need to throw your jeans in the laundry every time you wear them. Encouraging consumers to hand wash, spot clean where possible, and postpone as long as possible throwing their jeans into the washing machine. We have a number of initiatives against every aspect of the supply chain, if you will. From the growing of the cotton, to the manufacturing of a pair of jeans, to really trying to influence and educate consumers on the proper care of their product.

Schawbel: Millennials want to work for a company that is benefiting society. Why are companies starting to emphasize how they are helping the world more today than years ago? Do you think that companies that only focus on profit will have a recruiting dilemma in the future?

Bergh: I’ll tell you what we’ve been doing, but this is not something to just address the Millennials. It goes back to our founder, and it goes back to the values of this company. We actually talk about profits, we are a business. We’re here to make a profit. But we talk about profits through principles. We have a non-profit foundation, called the Levi Strauss Foundation, which has been in existence for more than 60 years. The company, every year, funds that foundation with a percentage of the profits that we make. Through that foundation we have lots of programs in the communities where we live and work. The more successful we are as a company, the more earnings or profits we deliver, the more we’re able to give to the Levi Strauss Foundation, and then give back to the communities. It is a big part of who we are as a company.

Ethisphere just named Levi Strauss & Co. one of the world’s most ethical companies. It’s something that we’re really proud of. It is part of our ethos. It is helpful in attracting and retaining talent, there’s no question about it. Especially today where young people, as you said, are looking for companies that align with their personal values. That’s just the kind of company we are. We didn’t change it to attract Millennials, that’s who we’ve been since the inception of this company. As a result of that, we stand for that, and we’re able to attract a lot of great talent because of what we stand for.

Schawbel: Going back to what you were talking about with the product life cycle assessment study, can you share some interesting findings of the study with us?

Bergh: Sure. We studied only two years of consumption in a consumer’s household. About 25 percent of the water is consumed by consumers once they get the product home. Part of it is just from this auto pilot response of, “After I wear a pair of jeans I’ve got to throw them into the washing machine.” In the US, people wash their jeans every two times they wear it. If everyone delayed or postponed the washing of their jeans and throwing them into the washing machine to every ten wears instead of two, they would save enough water to meet the annual water needs of the city of San Diego for a full year.

This whole notion of not being mindless about throwing your jeans into the washing machine—you really would be amazed how long you can wear a pair of jeans just with spot cleaning them, if you drop a little spaghetti sauce on them, or something. Or hand washing them. The washing machine consumes a ton of water. I think it’s about 9-14 liters in every wash cycle that pair of jeans would consume (depending on efficiency and age of the washing machine).

Dan Schawbel is the Founder of WorkplaceTrends.com, a research and advisory membership service for forward-thinking HR professionals.

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