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Levi Strauss & Co. Collaboratory Fellows

Levi’s Is Radically Redefining Sustainability

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And it all comes down to making a timeless product that the customer will hold on to for many, many years.

How do we make the fashion industry more sustainable? For Paul Dillinger, head of global product innovation at Levi Strauss & Co, it’s not enough to simply plant a few trees to offset carbon dioxide or use less toxic dyes. To make a real impact in the world, you need to help change the way people think about clothes.

Paul Dillinger
Levi’s has always been a leader in sustainability. In 1991, it established “terms of engagement” that laid out the brand’s global code of conduct throughout its supply chain. This meant setting standards for worker’s rights, a healthy work environment, and an ethical engagement with the planet. “It wasn’t an easy thing to do,” Dillinger says. “At the time, we were worried that doing this would drive up our own costs and prices.” In fact, what happened was that these practices were quickly adopted by other companies, who used it as a template to write their own rules. “We were actually leading industry toward new standards,” he says.

These days, Levi’s continues to focus on how it can push the envelope when it comes to being green. Dillinger believes that part of the solution is encouraging people to stop thinking about clothes as disposable. As a designer, his goal is to create durable jeans that customers love and feel good wearing because this increases the likelihood that they will care for them better and keep them longer. In this Creative Conversation, we discuss what it will take to create a real paradigm shift in people’s thinking about fashion.

You’re tasked with creating a product that is fairly timeless and less subject to trends. Are you intentionally changing the narrative about consumption?

Yes. In my wildest dreams, we’d be helping to cultivate a Levi’s consumer who values durability and demonstrates a real attachment to an object. We’d be nurturing the person who doesn’t purchase because of immediate seasonal change, but who purchases for lasting value. This would mean there are shared values between our brand and our consumer.

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A publicity shot for a Levi’s collection that Dillinger designed specifically for urban bicycle commuters.

This seems to run counter to the fashion industry, which values new looks and trends.

Yes, most companies are focused on convincing the consumer that they are not pretty unless they radically change their look; they’re not going to be in, attractive, or cool. They create a false appetite that directly leads to a pattern of hyper-consumption. If someone is pushing boyfriend jeans on you real hard this season, they’re probably going to be pushing a super skinny jegging on you next season. This radical oscillation in silhouette preference is going to make you feel that the thing you just bought is no longer valuable.

Instead, what we’re trying to do is encourage our consumer to be conscious that when they purchase a pair of jeans, that is not an isolated event. The garment had an impact before they purchased it, in terms of people that made it and the waste that was involved in creating it. And its going to exist long after they’re done owning it.

What would happen if we could change culture in such a way that consumers imagined the end of life of the product they bought? So, what if we said that you could mulch your jeans, put them in your garden, and see how the decomposition of your Levi’s could feed the food that you were growing. That’s conceivably how we might dispose of garments in the future. That would prompt the consumer to think about little details like how the color was applied to the garment in the first place. Would the chemicals in the dye affect the garment, my food, and my body? This is the kind of holistic thinking we want to spur in our customers. Fundamentally, asking them to take into account the impact they’re responsible for in the whole system, from the supply chain to the eventual disposal of the garment.

VIDEO: HOW LEVI STRAUSS & CO. KEEPS IMPROVING JEANS

How do you cultivate that consumer?

It starts with the product. Take the 501: It is an anchor product that has endured over time. Sure, it has evolved in some ways, but we don’t offer radical changes in silhouette. We’re owning the history and the provenance of our brand that makes essential, archetypal pieces of clothing.

What we do is we try to maintain a fit portfolio where we ensure that we have the fit you feel best in, not the one you’ve been told to feel best in. Then we make that product available consistently. When you love a pair of jeans, you develop an emotional connection not just with that object, but with the brand. You know that the brand has served you well. If we can make clothes that are really worth loving, then hopefully people will love them longer and care for them better.

We’re choosing not to participate in the fashion cycle. Instead, we’re choosing to cultivate long-term relationships with the consumer and deliver against their needs. And hopefully that participates in the recalibration of consumption broadly, though that is a lofty goal.

You’re known for your forward thinking when it comes to incorporating technology into fabrics. How do you do this, but also ensure that you are making these classic garments?

Technology is a loaded word: It implies gadget. We’re engaged in scientific dialogue with a lot of different people, but not all of it lights up the way you’d expect when you think of tech. There are ideas that we’re bringing to market that you might never notice. One that comes to mind is coming out in the next six months. A lot of people expect performance from clothing now. It’s one of the reasons that yoga pants are winning the market. The solution for performance has often been a mechanical or chemical application to a garment, often in the form of a synthetic fiber blended in. Often these technologies really flatten and dull the vibe of a jean. It starts to look like franken-jean: a jean from an unhappy future.

How do you bring that performance to a garment that is, in many ways, very similar to its original archetype that is now almost 150 years old? We’ve been working on this for two and a half years. The proposition is to bring jeans to market that will be 100% cotton, but that have hollow yarn architectures. We had a polyester that was woven into the yarn, but after weaving the [yarn] together [to make the denim], we were able to dissolve it out. What happens in that process is that we have the ability to wick away moisture and hold in warm air, but the jeans look and feel the way an authentic pair of Levi’s should.

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But I imagine that it is hard to create profound change as one isolated company.

Yes, absolutely. If you look at how the food industry has evolved and shifted, it’s not one chef, or one farmer, or one supermarket choosing to align itself around different values. It’s a whole evolving system of consciousness. Personally, I can only take responsibility for my own behavior and advocate for these values.

But I also think there are other likeminded people that we can seek out. We have a program called the Levi Strauss Collabatory where we bring small designers who share our values and help them integrate sustainability into their young new businesses. We give them the support they need to bring that to life. So we can help nurture the ecosystem.

As a large company, what are you doing to make your manufacturing process more sustainable?

I think it’s important to focus on making products sustainable in every place that we manufacture. It’s very important not to use offshoring as a way to hide the way that we are manufacturing. We believe in transparency. It’s incumbent on us to know that water is a precious resource everywhere in the world. And it’s important for everyone across the entire supply chain—from the farmers to the factory workers to the people disposing of the products—to be conscious of resource conservation. To do this, we have a life cycle assessment that looks at the impact at every stage of the process, all around the world.

It’s also about educating the customer, telling them that there are better ways to care for their clothes. You don’t have to wash your jeans every time you wear them; in fact, this is bad for them. If you hang them to dry, they’ll last longer. A simple message like that allows us to involve the consumer in a much bigger effort to carefully, deliberately draw down on resource consumption.

And importantly, when we unlock proprietary data about water or waste, the best thing we can do with that is share it with everybody. Last year, we hosted a conference here at Levi Strauss where we brought in our competitors and anyone in the industry who was interested, to share every bit of knowledge we had about water-saving best practices. If you figure out how to save water and you don’t tell people about it, you’re kind of a jerk.

*This story first appeared on Fast Company

 

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Meet John and Miriam, Levi Strauss & Co Collaboratory Fellows

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Now through October we are highlighting the first class of LS&Co. Collaboratory fellows.  These ten next-generation apparel leaders are making an outsized impact on their communities and we’re excited to take them behind our doors to expand their commitment to sustainable practices and reducing their water impact.

John Moore, co-founder and creative director of Outerknown, a sustainable menswear brand that blends function and style starting at the supply chain.

 

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Tell us about your business and the work you do.

Outerknown creates responsibly-made clothing. We began working on the brand in 2013, but only shipped our first products a year ago.  Along with my partner, Kelly Slater, we have a long history within the clothing business.  I’ve spent almost two decades designing clothes, so being on the front lines of manufacturing all over the world, I have seen how dirty the process really is.

For Kelly, clothing endorsements have been something that supported his storied career as a professional athlete, and one day he realized he had no idea how they were being made, which didn’t sit well with him. He’s still competing at the highest level, and clean living is part of his daily routine. He thinks about everything he puts in his body, so why shouldn’t he take the same approach to considering everything that goes into the clothing we put on our bodies every day?

What does it mean to you to create a more socially and environmentally responsible apparel industry?

It means making mindful decisions in everything we do. We look deeply into the suppliers we partner with, vetting them to make sure they meet our code of conduct and have the same high expectations and commitment to responsibility that we do.  This also means sharing the information we discover not only with our customers, but also within the industry in the hopes of inspiring a new normal around responsible manufacturing practices.

How important is water to what you do?

As surfers, we spend most of our lives in, and around, the water.  As clothing manufacturers, water is essential to the entire process… the growing of fibers, the processing of materials and the finishing of goods. It’s in our best interest to conserve wherever we can and do our best to limit pollution, keeping the water clean for future generations. We want to surf clean oceans and drink clean water – the latter is something that many of us take for granted.

What do you hope to get out of participating in the LS&Co. Collaboratory?

In the three and a half years since we began the Outerknown journey, so much has changed.  There were very few resources available to those of us that had a desire to build clothing in a more responsible way in the beginning of 2013. In our earliest days, you could say we were literally winging it with good intentions.  We discovered that most of our existing relationships in the fashion business could not deliver on our responsible standards, so we had to construct an entirely new supply chain.

Further, as a start-up, we don’t have the buying power to persuade suppliers to think more responsibly. So it’s pretty special that LS&Co. has opened up its doors and created the Collaboratory to bring different minds and talents together around the common desire to do good. By allowing us access to their innovation, leadership and resources, we are increasing the dialogue amongst peers, and advancing our understanding of what is possible.

Water is at the core of this first fellowship, but this is so much bigger than water. It’s about sharing information and inspiring others. The big guys sharing with the little guys.  I hope to come out smarter and better equipped for the road ahead, and if there are some tangible developments around product and process that we can fold into our business, even better.

What’s your Levi’s® story?

On a trip to the Rose Bowl flea market with my girlfriend when we first met 14 years ago, I bought a Levi’s trucker jacket for 10 bucks, ‘cause I loved the fit. It was vintage, but I don’t think it was worn much before I got it. It was basically rigid, deep blue, and had no discernable holes. Over the years it’s been the one item I’ve taken with me literally everywhere I go without fail. It’s been stained, torn, lost and then found (twice), and repaired so many times I can’t keep up.  It just keeps getting better and better.

Miriam Dym, Founder of Dym | california textiles, a workshop focused on producing local, “slow” textiles.

Miriam Dym 2 h-stretchprint-2015

Tell us about your business and the work you do.

My business produces hand block printed fabrics in California. I created it because, as a fabric designer, it was important for me to directly oversee how the fabric got produced. I also wanted to see if it was possible to use an ancient craft-manufacturing method (still used in parts of India and West Africa) here in North America. Our fabrics are typically used in interiors.

What does it mean to you to create a more socially and environmentally responsible apparel industry?
To be more socially and environmentally responsible, the whole supply chain needs to be brought into a sustainable model, with a focus on how and where fiber gets produced and processed, as well as an equal focus on educating consumers on how they take care of their clothes (and other soft goods) once they own them. Frequent washing and treating clothes as disposable are huge obstacles when it comes to reducing water and energy in apparel.

The next step, a difficult one, is to figure out an economic system that demands far, far less use of (new) apparel, textiles, and, really, all materials.  If we use radically less, what does that look like for the viability of apparel manufacturers and for peoples’ livelihoods? How does localism play into this?

How important is water to what you do?

Water is hugely important. The process I use, printing with transparent dyes —which makes the fabric so beautiful —relies on water to work. When I started this project, I knew that I wanted to not only re-use water (for my water bill) but also not put any waste into the water system. Because my scale of operations are small, this part of my project has eluded me for a combination of logistical (time and energy!) and financial reasons. Yet I’m interested in using as little water as possible, here in Northern California, given the drought conditions.

What do you hope to get out of participating in the LS&Co. Collaboratory?

I’d like to find out what solutions others use, and to connect with people who share my combined passion for being in a product business and wanting real environmental solutions. Water use and materials’ extraction and manufacturing tend to be invisible, as they happen in fields and factories geographically distant from shopping malls. Which means I’m also interested in how the people who buy textiles and apparel can become more knowledgeable and become invested in their clothes to help the planet.

What’s your Levi’s® story?

Oh, wow, Levi’s®. In middle school and high school, we’d buy utilitarian clothes at a workwear store in my small hometown (pop. 25,000), always choosing Levi’s®, though I never did get the shrink-to-fits to fit the way I wanted. I now have a pair of gorgeous Levi’s® jeans that fit like a glove. I’m looking forward to mending and keeping them around as long as they fit.

*This story first appeared on Levi-Strauss

Meet Kavita and Rebecca, Levi Strauss & Co. Collaboratory Fellows

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091516_unzipped_hero_collab_fellows1Now through October we are highlighting the first class of Levi Strauss & Co. Collaboratory fellows. These 10 next-generation apparel leaders are making an outsized impact on their communities, and we’re excited to take them behind our doors to expand their commitment to sustainable practices and reducing their water impact.Kavita Parmar: Founder and creative director of the IOU Project, an experiment to rethink how goods are produced and sold in a way that empowers artisans and protects the environment.

unknownTell us about your business and the work you do.

The IOU Project was born from my frustration and desire as a designer to fix what I see as the broken system of fashion. To the detriment of artisan makers, local communities, the environment, designers and even the customer, I feel like the current structure of the apparel industry is only rushing toward a short-term profit with no regard to the real human cost.

At the IOU Project, we developed proprietary technology to provide full transparency and traceability along the supply chain to both the customer and the maker. We currently work with more than 15 heritage textile communities around the globe and produce all our clothing with traditional craftsman/ateliers in Europe. Our goal is to become the Wikipedia of heritage artisans globally and be a resource for designers, the brands they represent and consumers.

What does it mean to you to create a more socially and environmentally responsible apparel industry?

We believe a more transparent system that provides full traceability would be a big step toward social and environmental responsibility. A sustainable system can only be made with full participation from the consumer community, as we need them to fully understand who and what is impacted by their buying decisions. In essence, we see value in empowering both ends of the supply chain.

How important is water to what you do?

Water is fundamental to what we do – and a huge concern for us – as we work with artisans who source locally grown cotton. Cotton is a thirsty plant, and dyeing and processing garments uses a large amount of water, which is unfortunately becoming a scarce commodity globally. Finding sustainable alternatives is a must.

What do you hope to get out of participating in the LS&Co. Collaboratory?

We are hoping to have a truly honest and open exchange of ideas between a company the size of Levi Strauss & Co. and our artisan communities. We believe there is the potential for real synergy in working together to solve the major problems we all face. As the quote by Marshall McLuhan goes, “There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.”

What’s your Levi’s® story?
The first collection I designed included repurposed vintage Levi’s® 501s® that I would scour for at second-hand and vintage stores. I would open up the inseams and hand-print, embroider, dip-dye and create unique pieces that I sold at some of the most exclusive high-end retailors in Spain.

I have always admired the core philosophy of the Levi’s® brand and have used it many times as an example of how you can build a product for longevity, like the 501®. I believe if any brand can be a catalyst for change in the apparel industry, it’s Levi’s® that has the history and product authenticity to create the change many of us want to see.

Rebecca van Bergen: Founder and executive director of Nest, a nonprofit committed to the social and economic advancement of the fashion and home industry’s informal workforce.

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Tell us about your business and the work you do.
Nest is focused on advancing social and economic opportunities for the millions of women who are part of the fashion and home industry’s informal workforce. While we often think of apparel production as taking place inside factories, as much as 60 percent of contemporary garment production is done in homes and small workshops around the world. Nest’s work focuses on channeling sector transparency, needs-based artisan business development and widespread homeworker advocacy to empower women, alleviate poverty, and preserve traditions of artisanship. The organization arose from my life-long drive to support women to be agents of change through economic empowerment.

Our approach is business-needs based. We are tackling the barriers to market access and successful partnership with international, largely western, brands by looking at both the artisan and brand perspective.. Brands can contract Nest (without us acting as artisan brokers or middleman) to bring increased transparency, social responsibility and economic sustainability to their own existing artisan and homeworker supply chains. We also can help to source new partners, but transparency into vendors and artisan independence is key to our success and theirs!
What does it mean to you to create a more socially and environmentally responsible apparel industry?

I’d like to address the ambiguity of the word sustainability head-on. Its origin is actually in ecology and is defined as the ability to make systems that remain diverse and productive indefinitely. I love using this definition because it reminds us that endurance is the key. If we want fashion to be around 10, 20, 100 years from now; if we want our planet to be around 10, 20, 100 years from now; if we want global craft traditions and artisan techniques to be not only around, but also thriving, we must practice responsibility both socially and environmentally.

At Nest, we are particularly bent on ensuring that this responsibility extends beyond factory labor to also acknowledge the millions of people and huge portions of the environmental supply chain that are non-factory based. The word “artisan” tends to carry negative connotations of being niche, hyper-localized, and outdated. Nest is challenging these stereotypes and repositioning this global population as a workforce to be taken very seriously.

How important is water to what you do?

Dyeing is a fundamental component of the production process for many artisan businesses, particularly those producing textiles. Unfortunately, improper disposal of wastewater can pose extreme risk to local environments, artisan health, and the wellbeing of community members who may be collecting drinking water nearby. In developing communities experiencing water scarcity, the dye process further depletes already limited resources.

While this issue has been explored from a major industry standpoint, wastewater management solutions that are affordable and applicable in small workshops and underserved communities have not been developed, leaving this population of workers and their surrounding home environments at risk. .

Nest is committed to creating practical and affordable solutions – across a broad spectrium of artisan businesses – to ensure more responsible wastewater treatment and disposal within the artisan and small workshop context.

What do you hope to get out of participating in the LS&Co. Collaboratory?

Nest firmly believes that change within the apparel industry must happen on a unified front to ensure collective progress and wide-reaching results. Through our participation in the Collaboratory, we will share our insights, resources and best practices, as well as learn from others, in our effort to build a scalable global solution for responsible wastewater management in home and workshop settings. We seek to determine how our work best merges with, compliments, and advances existing efforts. Our goal is to create model solutions the entire apparel industry can make use of.

What’s your Levi’s® story?
I bought my first pair of Levi’s® in my late 20s. I had just moved to New York City from my home in St. Louis with not a single pair of jeans (true story).  In “the big city”, ready to embark on the next chapter of my life, I wanted to find a pair of jeans that felt very authentic, high quality, and yes, fashionable. But alas, I could not afford the $200 price tag of many of the emerging denim brands.

Then I found Levi’s®, a name I knew to be classic and reliable. I bought a pair of slouchy boyfriend jeans for $40 – a purchase that has proven well worthwhile. These jeans saw me through adjusting to life in New York, through dating and marrying my husband, and they have even grown with me in having my two children (I cut them into shorts and they have a new life post pregnancy!). These jeans have grown and changed, just as I have, and still their style is timeless.

*This story first appeared on Levi Strauss