Better Cotton Initiative
Decoding Sustainability in the Denim Industry: Interview with Michael Kobori, Vice President of Sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co
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.
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
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
Major 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
Paper usage is down by 38%.
German sportswear maker Adidas successfully trimmed paper usage by 38% over a seven-year period at the company’s corporate offices by adding a simple request to virtual correspondence: “Please don’t print out this e-mail.”
The world’s second largest athletic-gear maker has also stopped stocking plastic water bottles for meetings, swapped plastic straws for paper ones, and at a recent global marketing meeting, reused banners to create bags that were needed for the event. All of those changes are part of a broader corporate-wide goal to reduce waste and lessen water usage.
“These types of changes can create arguments,” James Carnes, Adidas vice president of global brand strategy, tellsFortune. “Some said ‘I like the old plastic straw’ but it forces people to think.”
It also highlights why Adidas on Thursday unveiled a series of six priorities it hopes to achieve by 2020. Among those targets:
Apparel material suppliers will reduce water usage by 50%75% reduction in paper usage per employee from 2008’s levelCompletely switch to sustainable cotton usage by the end of 2018By 2020, a vast majority of suppliers will reduce energy usage by 20%
“Sustainability” is a word that is hard to define. Companies define their sustainable goals differently, and often times set long, multi-year targets to achieve their stated goals. Adidas says that’s why it was important to set metrics, which the company has made public on Thursday. Sustainability efforts are already permeating the company’s supply chain, including dry-dyeing clothes to save on water usage and a recentpartnership to use plastic material found in the oceans to create 3D-printed recycled polyester midsole for a new running shoe.
Another example to highlight would be Adidas’ plan to switch to “sustainable” cotton by the end of 2018. It is working with the non-profit Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) to achieve this switch, meaning it will only order cotton from suppliers that use less water and fewer chemicals to meet the standards set by BCI.
“Suppliers who are providing us with better cotton have a lower impact on the environment,” Carnes said. “We are more aggressively now switching to BCI suppliers.” By the end of last year, 43% of the cotton Adidas ordered came from those more responsible growers.
Material innovation is likely the way that Adidas and main rival Nike NKE 1.10% are able to sell the sustainability story in a way that can truly resonate with customers. Most notably on that front, Adidas is planning to increase the use of recycled polyester for the company’s products.
Carnes asserts the human race adds 200 million tons of plastic on the planet each year. And while recycling can help lessen that material’s impact, 10% of the plastics made still end up in the Earth’s oceans. That’s why Adidas says it wants to re-use plastics for the raw materials used to make soccer jerseys and pretty much any other fabric-based product Adidas manufacturers.
“One of our long-term goals is to create an endless cycle of material usage,” Carnes said. “We aren’t an innovator that then thinks of sustainability later. We are actually looking at how do we innovate everything we do with sustainability as the foundation.”
*This story first appeared on Fortune
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.
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.