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Decoding Sustainability in the Denim Industry: Interview with Michael Kobori, Vice President of Sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co

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The denim industry is regarded as having one of the worst environmental and ethical footprints within fashion . According to a Greenpeace report, it takes 1.7 million tons of chemicals to produce two billion pairs of jeans every year and the water consumption needed for production can go as high as 7,000 litres per one pair. Consequently, it is essential that denim brands hold themselves accountable and invest in innovation for the sake of sustainability and curbing environmental and labour abuse further down the supply chain. Michael Kobori, Vice President of Sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co, talks to Euromonitor International about Levi’s role as a recognised sustainability leader and the journey towards a sustainable, innovation-driven future.

AMONG LARGE DENIM COMPANIES, LS&CO HAS DEMONSTRATED LEADERSHIP WHEN IT COMES TO SUSTAINABILITY AND PROMOTING CIRCULAR ECONOMY. HOW DOES THE SUSTAINABILITY AGENDA FIT INTO THE OVERALL CORPORATE STRATEGY?

At LS&Co, we believe how we make our products is as important  as what we make. This belief is core to our business and means that sustainability is not just an add-on to our corporate strategy, but integrated into everything we do. Running a sustainable company is the right thing to do. It is also good for business.

IS THERE ANY WAY YOU CAN MEASURE THE IMPACT OF THE INVESTMENTS INSUSTAINABILITY ON YOUR SALES REVENUE? WHAT ROLE DOES IT PLAY IN SUPPORTING TOP-LINE GROWTH AND WINNING MARKET SHARE ACROSS KEY MARKETS?

At this point in our sustainability journey, we are not measuring the impact of our investments on sales revenue. That said, we are measuring impacts across our business operations. We look at sustainability from an environmental, social and economic perspective. From our Water Less™ finishing techniques to our Worker Well-being initiative, we have seen reduced costs or improved business throughout our supply chain . We also know that younger consumers increasingly seek out companies that demonstrate social purpose and are more likely to buy from companies that support social and environmental causes.

WHAT ARE THE MAIN SUSTAINABILITY CHALLENGES FOR LS&CO AND THE INDUSTRY AS A WHOLE?

When it comes to reducing our environmental footprint, we know what areas to focus on because we’ve studied our impact and have data to drive our decisions. In 2007 and again in 2015, we conducted an environmental lifecycle assessment on a pair of Levi’s® 501’s. One of our biggest areas of impact – and one of the most critical resources on the planet – is water. From this assessment, we realised that the most water use during the lifecycle is during the cotton growing and consumer care phases.

To help reduce our impacts, we joined with the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), which helps educate farmers on reducing water and pesticide use while increasing yields. Currently, 19% of the cotton we use is from BCI and we aim to increase that number to 95% by 2020.

For consumers, we expanded our “Care Tag for the Planet” to all LS&Co products. It encourages consumers to wash less, wash cold, line dry and donate when done.

And, even though the impact was smaller, we also set out to innovate in our own production. In 2011, our designers launched our Water Less™ finishing techniques, which can reduce water usage up to 96%.

When it comes to our ethical footprint, LS&Co has long been a leader in protecting and ensuring the rights of workers. In 1991, we were the first company to launch a comprehensive code of conduct for our vendors worldwide – called our Terms of Engagement. In 2011, we saw an opportunity to go even further and create a sustainable model to improve the well-being of workers. Called the Worker Well-being initiative, we work with vendors to identify the unmet needs of workers in factories , then work with local partners and NGOs to implement programmes to meet those needs. Since the pilot, we’ve expanded to 12 countries reaching nearly 100,000 workers. Our aim is to reach 300,000 by 2025.

WHAT ADVANCEMENTS HAVE YOU MADE IN THE CIRCULAR ECONOMY SPACE? IS BECOMING 100% CIRCULAR A VIABLE OBJECTIVE TO ACHIEVE FOR A DENIM BRAND?

Creating a truly circular economy is very challenging for any clothing brand. The biggest challenge we face is taking recycled clothing and converting it into new garments without losing product durability or integrity. Traditionally, when cotton is recycled, it is shredded, which reduces cotton fibre staple length. That degrades the stability and strength of the fibre, leaving consumers with a lower quality garment that won’t last.

Another challenge is in the different materials in jeans today. Many jeans are made with cotton-polyester blends. It is difficult to separate out the cotton fibres to recycle.

So what are we doing? R&D is a big area. We are working both internally and with external companies to find solutions. One example is our work with Evrnu, a company we partnered with that is able to melt or dissolve recycled cotton to the cellulosic level, then re-extrude that as a new fibre with improved strength.

We’re also working to change consumer behaviour. To create new products from old jeans, we need the jeans! We’ve partnered with a company called I:CO to put recycling bins in our stores in the US, Canada, the UK, and Japan to collect any brand of old clothing or shoes. I:CO then recycles and upcycles the items. In the US, we also partner with Goodwill, an American non-profit organisation, through a programme called the “Give Back Box .” When consumers buy clothes online from Levi’s® or Dockers®, we give them a free shipping label to send old clothes from any brand to donate to Goodwill.

These steps help start the journey towards creating a circular economy.

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Source: Levi Strauss & Co

IN SWEDEN, THE GOVERNMENT IS PROPOSING A NEW LAW TO REDUCE TAX FOR CLOTHING AND FOOTWEAR REPAIRS WITH AN AIM OF TACKLING THE THROWAWAY CULTURE. DO YOU ANTICIPATE A REVIVAL IN FASHION REPAIR SERVICES ON A LARGER SCALE?

We’re already seeing a revival in fashion repair, especially when it comes to some of our classic icons and silhouettes such as the 501® and Trucker Jacket. We’re also known for continuously reinventing those classics ourselves with modern touches and customisations.

To follow that mindset, we launched the Levi’s® Tailor Shop at select retail locations around the world, which offers alterations, hemming, repairs and custom embroidery by in-house denim experts. At most ofour retail locations in Europe, Levi’s® tailors are able to provide customers one-of-a-kind pieces, custom styles, and properly repaired denim.

HOW DO CONSUMERS RESPOND TO YOUR SUSTAINABILITY EFFORTS? ARE YOU SEEING ANY SIGNIFICANT SHIFTS IN ATTITUDES TOWARDS BUYING FASHION AND WHAT CHANGES ARE YOU EXPECTING IN THE NEXT FIVE YEARS?

Our CEO, Chip Bergh, often says that millennial customers care about value and values. I think we are starting to see that more and more customers are conscious about how their clothes are made and where they are coming from, and that number will continue to grow in the next five years. Especially as we as a planet continue to face the challenges of climate change and a more connected global economy.

FOSTERING SUSTAINABILITY AND RESPONSIBLE CONSUMERISM IS ON TOP OF THE AGENDA FOR MANY PLAYERS IN THE DENIM INDUSTRY. WHAT OTHER BRANDS DO YOU MOST RESPECT FOR DRIVING SUSTAINABILITY INITIATIVES?

We collaborate and partner with many brands to drive sustainability in the apparel industry. Some brands I really admire in other sectors are Unilever and Interface Carpets.

*This story first appeared on Euromonitor

The Truth about Water and Cotton: It’s Complicated

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Cotton has a reputation for being “difficult,” water-wise. Numerous non-profits and global media outlets such as The Guardian have laid blame on it for dwindling water resources in places like India, or for the environmental devastation in the Aral Sea. The truth, as is often the case, is not so cut and dried. In fact, cotton is downright drought tolerant and there are numerous ongoing efforts to improve cotton’s water footprint across the board.

If cotton is not such a grotesque water hog, why the erroneous conventional wisdom? According to Ed Barnes, Senior Director for Agricultural and Environmental Research with Cotton Inc, a U.S.-based industry research and lobbying organization, quite often, it is guilt-by-association.

“Cotton naturally is very heat and drought tolerant,“said Barnes. “The plant…has always grown in very harsh environments. When you have a crop that is adapted to hot and dry climates, then it is growing in areas that experience water scarcity.”

Understanding where cotton is being grown is key to both understanding its water footprint, and also developing strategies to improve it.

“There all these complexities,” said Laila Petrie with the World Wildlife Federation’s Global Partnerships Team. “Is cotton being grown in a water-scarce area? Is there not good water governance?”

Even factoring all this, cotton – as one of the world’s mostimportant agricultural products – does effect water scarcity in certain parts of the world, with sometimes negative impacts.

“There is a correlation between cotton and high irrigation, and there’s a high correlation between cotton growth and water scarcity and high water risk areas,” said Petrie.

Still, putting all the blame on the cotton plant is misguided. While farmers bear some responsibility, things like global warming and lack of oversight are beyond their control.

For example, the Aral Sea. While it is true that cotton farming was scaled up around Central Asia by the then ruling Soviet Union Government, it was the diversion of rivers away from the landlocked sea for unsustainable irrigation, all for quick cash from cottonexports, that was to blame for the disaster.

“The Aral Sea is a real tragedy of modern times,” said Barnes, “But there was nothing intrinsic about cotton that contributed to that problem.”

The truth is, we need cotton. As a product, it has numerous advantages. It is durable, recyclable, and provides livelihoods to millions. It’s main competitors – synthetics such as polyester, or leather – are rife with sustainability challenges as well. Cotton is an essential part of the global economy, and that is not changing anytime soon.

“Water is not a cotton problem, it’s a world problem, and none of us have really cracked that. It just so happens that cotton production is correlated with areas that have challenges,” said Petrie.

Thus, to blame the cotton plant alone would be a folly, and ignores the important role that technology, good governance, and proper farming techniques can play in making the crop more sustainable. In fact, Cotton Inc is working directly with farmers to provide better tools to help them make smarter water decisions – and seeing real results.

“The trend over the last 30 years – for every inch of water we use in irrigation, we’re getting more cotton,” said Barnes. “We’re finding over a 70 percent increase in lbs per inch of water.” And new technology, including the growing power of data, is making things ever better.

“One of our big pushes in the last five years is use of sensors in the field to measure the soil or the plant to see if it needs water,” said Barnes. They hope to have a national app for farmers next year that taps into sensor data, and data from the national weather service, to better equip farmers with the information they need to reduce water usage.

WWF is also working with partners – including Tommy Hilfiger, American Eagle, and numerous other global brands – to improve cotton through the Better Cotton Initiative. Their goal is to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in and better for the sector’s future, by developing Better Cotton as a sustainable mainstream commodity.

This means understanding that cotton’s life-cycle water usage and consumption, however, is not just what happens in the fields. Throughout the entire supply chain water is used, whether it is processing, printing, or even consumers washing and drying cotton products at homes across the world.

“Not much visibility from one end to another,” said Petrie. “There are 20 steps between the brand and cotton field. Cotton is traded as a commodity which means its hard to trace without a lot of effort.

This is a fundamental challenge for the industry.”

Both Cotton Inc, and WWF, have commissioned extensive, detailed reports and studies to figure out the whole picture of cotton’s water footprint, because unless we truly understand cotton at every phase of its, we can’t make it sustainable. In a future piece, we’ll look at the entire supply-chain water impacts of cotton to better understand the big picture.

*This story first appeared on The Triple Pundit

Forget Organic, Retailers Increasingly Are Turning to Sustainable Cotton

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-1x-1.pngMajor brands have increased their use of so-called Better Cotton.

Cotton, the most widely used natural fiber, is considered the world’s dirtiest crop because of its heavy use of pesticides—its cultivation accounts for up to 17.5 percent of global insecticide sales, according to some estimates. So in recent years, several apparel and home-goods companies, including Eileen Fisher, Patagonia, and Nike, have used organic cotton, grown by farmers who eschew pesticides and enrich their soil with compost.

That’s good for the environment but raises another big problem: Organic cotton is too expensive for average shoppers. Organic fiber cost as much as $2.20 per pound, vs. about 61¢ for conventional cotton, in the 2015-16 growing season. That’s kept demand low; less than 1 percent of the world’s cotton production is organic.

“That’s one of the aims, to make Better Cotton mainstream and make it available for the masses” – Ulrika Hvistendahl, sustainability spokeswoman for Ikea

Over the past nine years, Ikea, Zara-parent Inditex, and H&M, among others, have signed on to the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), a coalition of farmers, garment makers, and retailers committed to producing and using sustainable cotton at accessible prices. BCI farmers are taught how to grow sustainable cotton using less pesticide and water—reducing stress on the environment—at a cost close to that of regular fiber. “That’s one of the aims, to make Better Cotton mainstream and make it available for the masses,” says Ulrika Hvistendahl, sustainability spokeswoman for Ikea. Since 2009 the retailer has increased the percentage of Better Cotton used in its products, from sheets to furniture. In fiscal 2015, 70 percent of the cotton Ikea used was Better Cotton.

Environmentally Correct T-shirts are too Expensive for Many Shoppers

Similar efforts, like Bayer CropScience’s e3 sustainable cotton program, which works with farmers to ensure they’re producing cotton responsibly, are increasing supplies of sustainable cotton. The material can help companies appeal to millennials and environmentally minded customers. “Offering a product with a sustainability cachet but not the added cost may meet the sweet spot of pleasing both a consumer’s conscience and wallet,” says Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Gregory Elders.

In 2015, Nike and H&M used more sustainable cotton than organic cotton for the first time. Better Cotton has grown to around 12 percent of global cotton production in 2015, vs. 0.5 percent for organic, according to BCI. Says BCI Chief Operating Officer Lena Staafgard: “By 2020 our goal is to reach 5 million farmers worldwide and account for 30 percent of global cotton production.”

Cotton Crib Sheet
*More than 27 million tons of cotton are produced annually in over 85 countries
*Ikea uses 1 percent of the world’s cotton
*It can take up to 713 gallons of water to make one T-shirt, according to the World Wildlife Fund

*This story first appeared on Bloomberg

IKEA meets aggressive better cotton pledge. What’s next?

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By Heather Clancy

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Corporations are weaving stricter standards into their cotton sourcing. Bales of cotton appear here in a field. Shutterstock: Adriano Kirihara

You may not think of IKEA as a huge consumer of cotton, but the Scandinavian furniture seller uses 0.7 percent of the world’s supply for items such as sofa, upholstery and towels. That makes its sourcing milestone disclosed in September all the more significant: IKEA now buys all of its cotton from famers working in collaboration with the Better Cotton Initiative.

BCI was created 10 years ago by several non-governmental organizations along with IKEA and other notable apparel makers such as Adidas, Gap and H&M. Its mission is to encourage sustainable growing practices that rely on less water, less fertilizers and less pesticides, among other things.

IKEA’s commitment to sourcing 100 percent of its cotton from BCI sources by 2015 was the most aggressive among the original members. That was by design. “If we had not set the 100 percent target, it actually would have been hard to get this change to happen,” said Steve Howard, chief sustainability officer for IKEA. “If you set a partial target, everyone thinks they can be the exception.”

Cotton was, by far, the commodity contributing most negatively to IKEA’s overall carbon footprint, according to Howard. The world’s largest home furnishing company sources most of its cotton from India, Pakistan, Turkey, China, Brazil and the United States. About 5 percent of the supply comes from U.S. sources, according to IKEA data.

Howard credits years of grassroots advocacy and education for helping IKEA’s primary cotton farmers embrace growing practices that honor the Better Cotton Standard. Some are realizing reductions in water and fertilizer usage of up to 50 percent. At the same time, yields for many have increased by 5 percent to 15 percent, Howard said.

IKEA worked closely with supply-chain partners to reach individual farmers. At the same time, it issued a top-down mandate to switch procurement to sustainable cotton sources over time — ensuring that sustainable growers had a market for their product. “This wasn’t just one company; this was a movement,” Howard said, noting that the response was particularly positive in South Asia.

Reaching its procurement goal doesn’t mean IKEA will stop paying attention to more sustainable cotton production. “This is just a milestone on the journey. We will push for a better, better cotton,” Howard said.

For one thing, IKEA continues to prioritize saving water. In particular, it advocates drip irrigation techniques because they cut down on the amount of water that is sprayed onto soil where no crops are planted.

IKEA also intends to diversify the sorts of fibers it uses for textiles, both through recycling of previously used material and by increasing the ways in which it uses hemp and flax, Howard said.

According to BCI, more than 25 million tonnes of cotton are produced annually. As of last year, about 7.6 percent of that amount was produced using farming methods that met the Better Cotton Standard. As of 2014 more than 1.2 million small farming operations have embraced the initiative in 20 countries, which was ahead of schedule. By 2020, the target is 30 percent of global production and 5 million farmers.

Here are the current goals for five other high-profile apparel makers that have committed to sourcing cotton from more sustainable sources, along with information about their current progress (where available):

  • Adidas Group – 100 percent by 2018; in 2014, the athletic apparel company sourced about 30 percent of its cotton fiber using BCI source, ahead of its goal
  • H&M – 100 percent by 2020; as of 2014, 21.2 percent of the cotton in products sold by the Swedish clothing retailer were organic, recycled or grown via BCI production methods
  • Levi Strauss & Co. — 75 percent by 2020; as of April, the denim giant had reached 6 percent
  • Marks & Spencer — 70 percent by 2020; as of its last update, the British retailer said one-third of its cotton comes from BCI, organic, recycle or Fair Trade sources
  • Nike – 100 percent by 2020; as of a 2014 update, the icon sneaker maker said it may take longer to transition its cotton sources than anticipated

*This story first appeared on GreenBiz.

What is Better Cotton Anyway?

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Better Cotton is gaining popularity in the raw materials sector and many in the industry still don’t quite understand the initiative or how to incorporate it to improve sustainability in supply chains.

The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) is a project aimed at defining a more sustainable way to grow cotton and the organization has been working in cotton growing regions of the world since 2010 to promote measurable and continuing improvements for the environment, farming communities, and their economies.

In an effort to uncomplicate the Better Cotton concept, Robert Antoshak, managing director of Olah Inc. will conduct an interview with Patrick Laine, CEO of the Better Cotton Initiative, and Michael Kobori, vice president of sustainability for Levi Strauss & Co. on Thursday, Aug. 13 at 7:30 a.m. CDT.

The topic on the table will be: What is the Better Cotton Initiative and What Does This Program Mean For Cotton Growers?

“The interviews will be a chance for cotton growers to learn about the Better Cotton Initiative and the interest brands and retailers have in sustainable production. In turn, the program will provide the opportunity for sourcing executives throughout the industry to learn about cotton production,” Antoshak said. “By doing so, it’s our hope that program will help bridge an educational gap between both ends of the cotton textile supply chain.”

In addition to the interviews, a panel of cotton experts will discuss the cotton market, crop conditions, domestic demand, exports and farm policy.

Panelists will include O.A. Cleveland, professor emeritus, Mississippi State University, H.W. “Kip” Butts, senior cotton analyst, Informa Economics, Jarral Neeper, president, Calcot, Ltd., Dr John Robinson, Professor and Extension Specialist/Cotton Marketing, and Patrick McClatchy, executive director, Ag Market Network.

“Retailers look for sustainable products to not only meet the demand of their customers but also to encourage their supply chains to produce in an efficient environmentally manner,” Antoshak said.

To listen live, call 1 (712) 775-7085 and enter code 969119, or listen live at http://www.agmarketnetwork.net. An archived recording will also be available at www.AgMarketNetwork.net. You can submit questions through Facebook (AgMarketNetwork) or Twitter (@AgMarketNetwork).

**This story first appeared on Sourcing Journal Online here.