Manufacturing

Levi’s Dreams Big to Lead Change in the Fashion Industry

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By 2025, the world’s oldest jeans brand will make all of its products from 100 per cent sustainable cotton as part of an ambitious plan to “close the loop” on its supply chain.

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Levi’s plans for 100,000 factory workers to be enrolled in its Worker Well-being programme in 11 countries, representing 60 per cent of its production volume. Image: Levis Strauss

Levi Strauss is dreaming big to close the loop on its manufacturing supply chain, and is looking to revolutionise the apparel sector with ideas that could shakeup the conventional notion of a fashion brand.

By 2025, the world’s oldest jeans brand plans to manufacture all of its products from sustainable cotton.

So in just eight years, the family-run US$4.5 billion firm will use less cotton sourced from cotton fields to make its famous 501s, relying instead on old clothes from people’s closets.

There is just one minor obstacle, though. The technology to turn worn cotton into a quality material that looks like denim hasn’t been invented yet.

But Michael Kobori, the vice president of sustainability at Levi’s, is the optimistic sort. “Anything is possible,” he tells Eco-Business.

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Michael Kobori, vice president, global sustainability, Levi Strauss

Currently, just a fraction of all the cotton Levi’s uses comes from recycled sources, with the rest coming from virgin cotton. To raise the ratio of recycled material will depend on innovations in science.

Recycling cotton involves first chopping up the unwanted clothes. This degrades the quality of the material, so only a limited amount can be used again to make new garments.

Levi’s is working with the technology sector to find a solution, and in May last year announced a venture with Seattle-based tech firm Evrnu to produce the first jeans made from regenerated post-consumer cotton waste.

A prototype was made from five discarded cotton t-shirts, and with 98 per cent less water than virgin cotton products.

Though some virgin cotton was used, Levi’s is claiming it is a breakthrough for a sector that, in the US alone, creates 13.1 million tonnes of textile waste a year, 11 million tonnes of which ends up in landfill.

Recycling old clothes may not be a perfect model for avoiding waste, but Levi’s nevertheless wants to get consumers into the habit.

Levis runs a programme in five major markets – Japan, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany – that gives customers a 15 per cent discount on a new Levi’s item if they donate any old clothes (they don’t have to be Levi’s) to be recycled.

The company is refining the initiative before rolling it out in other markets. “We’re trying to learn what works best for the consumer, and what our competitors are doing,” says Kobori.

Other apparel companies, such as H&M, the Swedish brand that pioneered the throwaway clothing culture known as “fast fashion”, run similar recycling schemes.

“We want to encourage consumers to recycle, but we also want to bring in a programme that is unique and differentiates us,” Kobori notes, adding that Levi’s sustainability initiatives are “open source,” so others can copy them.

The ROI of Healthy Factory Workers

Though it is not something the company shouts about in its advertising campaigns, sustainability has long been a point of difference for the 163 year-old brand.

Levi’s was not only the first apparel company, but the first multinational to introduce a labour code of conduct in 1991, to ensure that the workplace standards and business practices of its suppliers lived up to its own.

“When we developed the programme 25 years ago, it was a breakthrough,” says Kobori. “Before then, companies didn’t really think about the sustainability of their supply chains. It was thought to be the government’s job. Now protecting people’s rights is the bare minimum that companies should be doing.”

A quarter of a century on, as the global cotton industry supply chain has come under greater scrutiny, Levi’s is working to improve the lot of factory workers through its Worker Well-being programme.

The programme began in 2011 with a survey of factory workers in five key production bases, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt and Haiti, to find out how their lives could be improved beyond the basic protection of their rights.

So what do factory workers, most of whom are women who have moved from the countryside to the city to work, want? Access to healthcare and financial services, according to the survey. These services are delivered through Levi’s vendors, with the help of NGOs.

The scheme started out as a pilot with five vendors and is now being expanded to 25 suppliers in 11 countries. This will mean better healthcare and financial support for 100,000 workers behind 60 per cent of the company’s production volume.

“By 2020, 80 per cent of our volume will be made through Worker Wellbeing vendors, and 100 percent by 2025,” says Kobori.

Benefits for workers makes good business sense, but factories often need convincing that the upfront cost is worth it, Kobori says.

“The business case has to be there if we’re asking vendors across the industry to do this,” he explains.

“Skilled workers are an increasingly precious commodity. Workers will move factories depending on who gives the best benefits. So vendors are looking for programmes that will help them reduce turnover and increase productivity,” he says.

Levi’s has been working with Harvard University to evaluate the Worker Well-being programme. Early findings show that for every dollar a vendor invests, they get three dollars backs in reduced turnover and increased productivity.

Beyond the Supply Chain

The supply chain has been the focus of Levi’s sustainability efforts, and the company also aims to expand its Water<Less programme, so that 40 per cent of its products are made using less water by 2020.

Now, it plans to move sustainability beyond the supply chain. “Brand, retail, marketing and operations – all are looking at ways to introduce a more sustainable approach,” says Kobori.

Levi’s is also looking to find business opportunities in sustainability. The company is planning to roll out its Levi’s Tailor Shops concept, where customers can get their old clothing repaired, altered or customised, beyond the United States and Japan.

“It’s not just about making garments last longer, but about opening up a potential new revenue stream for us,” Kobori explains.

Showing the business case for sustainability is key for a company that hasn’t had an easy ride in recent years, as increased competition from rival apparel brands now making denim, and currency fluctuation issues have hurt the bottom line.

But the sustainability function has remained intact despite a business overhaul, and return to revenue growth, led by president and chief executive officer Chip Bergh.

After five years of diligent work to turn around Levi’s economic issues, Levi’s finally saw an increase in revenue and profit. The company boasts three consecutive years of growth, many believe due to Bergh’s leadership.

“Our commitment to sustainability doesn’t change because the currency is fluctuating,” says Kobori, who adds that Levi’s sustainability budget has stayed “relatively constant” in recent years, and new initiatives continue to be added and existing programmes expanded.

Sustainability is key for a brand whose core target group and employee base are millennials – 50 per cent of Levi’s workforce belong to this young demographic, people who reached adulthood early this century. Millennials tends to care more about issues such as sustainably produced cotton, and less about Levi’s long heritage.

“For millennials, heritage may be less important, so brands need to stand for something,” says Kobori.

Sustainability is particularly important for Levi’s now, he says, given the change in government in the American brand’s home country and largest market, and also in key emerging markets such as China where millennials are increasingly discerning of how brands behave.

“Society is looking to the private sector to take the lead on the changes that people want to see in the world,” he says, pointing to an announcement from Bergh in support of the right of workers to migrate to the United States.

“He [Bergh] is not in favour of the travel ban that the [Trump] administration has issued, and employees responded with tremendous positivity to the stance he has taken. They’re looking for us to stand up for what’s right.”

“Sustainability is becoming more important for us,” adds Kobori. “Heritage is our bedrock, it’s who we are. But if we are able to articulate to the consumer that we also stand for the right causes and issues, we become much more contemporary and relevant.”

*This story first appeared on Eco-Business

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China Using Electron Beams to Treat Textile Wastewater

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Image Credit: Nuclear and Energy Technology Institute, Tsinghua University, Beijing

Textile dyeing accounts for one fifth of all industrial wastewater pollution generated worldwide and much of it, particularly in developing countries in Asia, goes untreated. Now, China is employing electron beams to treat effluent from textile dyeing plants, ushering in a new era for radiation technology.

“Despite advances in conventional wastewater treatment technology in recent years, radiation remains the only technology that can treat the most stubborn colorants in wastewater,” said Suni Sabharwal, Radiation Processing Specialist at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). “The problem is that the technology exists in developed countries, while most of the need now is in the developing world.”

To bridge the knowledge gap, the IAEA ran a coordinated research project on the technology, including its transfer to several countries, mostly in Asia. Chinese researchers, for example, have benefited from the advice of experts from Hungary, Korea and Poland in the adoption of the technology and the construction of the plant, said Jianlong Wang, Deputy Director of the Nuclear and Energy Technology Institute at Tsinghua University in Beijing and the principal researcher behind the project.

The new plant in Jinhua city, 300 kilometers south of Shanghai, will treat 1500 cubic meters of wastewater per day, around a sixth of the plant’s output. “If everything goes smoothly, we will be able to roll out technology to the rest of the plant and eventually to other plants across the country,” Wang said.

Before opting for radiation technology using electronic beams, Chinese researchers had run an extensive set of feasibility experiments using the effluent from the plant, comparing electron beam technology with other methods. “Electron beam technology was the clear winner as both the more ecological and more effective option,” Wang added.

Other countries with large textile manufacturing industries, such as India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, are also considering introducing the technology with the assistance of the IAEA. India is already using gamma irradiation to treat municipal sewage sludge.

In standard wastewater treatment, bacteria are used to digest and breakdown pollutants. However, the molecules in textile effluent cannot be treated with bacteria. To color textiles, compounds with large, long and complex chains are used. Wastewater from the industry can contain more than 70 complex chemicals that do not easily degrade.

By irradiating the effluent using electron beams, scientists can break these complex chemicals into smaller molecules, which, in turn, can be treated and removed using normal biological processes. Irradiation is done using short-lived reactive radicals than can interact with a wide range of pollutants and break them down.

Chinese researchers are also considering the use of electron beam technology to treat residues from pharmaceutical plants that produce antibiotics. These residues are currently handled as hazardous waste because they contain antibiotics and antibiotic resistance genes that cannot be destroyed using conventional technologies, such as composting or oxidation. Research has revealed that electron beam technology can effectively decompose the residual antibiotics and antibiotic resistance genes, Wang explained. The establishment of a demonstration plant at an industrial scale is planned for later this year.

*This story first appeared on Sustainable Brands

Patagonia Invests in Natural Textile Treatments

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Patagonia today announced a strategic investment in a chemical company focused on making high-performance textile treatments based on natural raw materials.

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Image Credit: Patagonia

Beyond Surface Technologies, a Swiss firm, was founded in 2008 by scientists and marketing experts with more than 40 years of experience in the textile industry. They left careers at big chemical companies to build a business based on the premise that it is possible to make textile treatments based on natural raw materials — without sacrificing performance or reducing the lifespan of a product.

The investment comes through Patagonia’s “$20 Million & Change” fund, which launched in 2013 to “help innovative, like-minded companies bring solutions to the environmental crisis and other positive change through business.”

Chemicals are a required component in achieving the high performance needed for harsh outdoor conditions — it’s what makes waterproof materials stand up to torrential wilderness downpours, jackets that can resist wind on a steep pitch and pants that have the right amount of protection as you’re knee-deep in fresh powder, Patagonia says.

However, these chemicals which are relied on for technical performance can be toxic and persist in the environment, a serious issue Patagonia says it is tackling aggressively. It plans to share any breakthroughs Beyond Surface Technologies may produce with the entire outdoor industry in order to amplify the environmental impact to the greatest extent possible.

“Patagonia’s investment gives us the opportunity to accelerate testing and reduce time to market for our pipeline of groundbreaking new treatments for the entire apparel industry, Matthias Foessel, CEO of Beyond Surface Technologies said in a statement. “Patagonia is enabling us to grow even faster — benefiting the environment and enhancing product performance — while remaining completely independent and in control of the original founders.”

In related chemicals news, the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute late last year announced it would begin offering a Material Health Certificate, a tool for manufacturers across industries to communicate their work toward chemically optimized products. The Material Health Certificate marks the first time the Institute has offered reporting of its comprehensive methodology in only one category.

** This post first appeared on Sustainable Brands here.

BB to create $500m green fund for textile

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The central bank will set aside $500 million of low-cost funds for textile factories to help them adopt eco-friendly technologies and practices, Governor Atiur Rahman said yesterday.

The money will come in addition to the existing export development fund (EDF) of $1.5 billion and will be named Green EDF, he told a discussion at the office of Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh in Dhaka.

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PRI organised the discussion on “access to finance: environmental sustainability in the textile sector” in association with the International Finance Corporation.

Rahman came up with the decision instantly after a number of bankers and economists stressed the need for such a fund for the textile sector.

At present, Bangladesh Bank is offering the EDF to exporters at a rate of LIBOR (London Interbank Offered Rate) plus 2.5 percent for six months. An exporter can borrow a maximum of $15 million in foreign currency.

“The criteria for accessing the fund by the wet processing units, which are also export-oriented or providing supplies to the garment sector, should be considered in view of the overall sustainability of the textile sector,” said Ahsan H Mansur, executive director of PRI.

At the seminar, he presented a paper, which he prepared in association with Ifty Islam, managing partner of AT Capital.

Mansur said inefficient resource use and poor environmental practices are major challenges for the textile sector. The textile factories in Dhaka currently consume 1,500 billion litres of groundwater annually to produce five million tonnes of fabric, with every kg of fabric gobbling up 300 litres against the global standard of 100 litres per kg of fabric.

Mansur said making funds available does not guarantee that entrepreneurs would use the resources.

“Education and awareness is important. Besides, customs and supplementary duties should be eliminated for importing cleaner technology equipment and machinery.”

The BB governor said the country’s garment sector would not be able to reach the $50 billion export target by 2021 without adopting green technologies.

Rahman called for a separate allocation in the budget to promote green financing in the textile sector. “Budgetary allocation makes it possible to provide low-cost funds.”

The BB chief said the progress in the textile sector has also brought in multiple challenges in urban expansion, land use, workplace safety and environmental safeguards.

For example, textile dyeing and finishing units in Bangladesh are known to be hugely wasteful in water usage as they consume five times the best practice benchmark.

The toxic discharges of the industry pollute both surface and ground water which has serious consequences for all living beings.

“Long-term sustainability of the industry greatly lies in its ability to produce green textile products mainly due to growing consumer demand for eco-friendly products,” the governor said.

Rahman also said a green development policy should be incorporated into the next five-year plan of the country.

Mohammed Abdul Jabbar, managing director of DBL Group, said with an initial investment of $100,000, his company was able to reduce wastage of water, energy, steam, dye and chemical worth $500,000 within a year. “So, it is a matter of mindset. It is not a big deal.”

Mustafizur Rahman, executive director of Centre for Policy Dialogue, said environmental sustainability is very important for the country’s mid- and long-term development.

“The country will be able to raise its garment exports to $50 billion by 2021 if the factories are eco-friendly.”

Ifty Islam said environmental sustainability has become a central point of China’s five-year plan although the country is infamous for environmental pollution. “We will have to do the same.”

Faruque Hassan, a former vice president of Bangladesh Garment Manu-facturers and Exporters Association, said the factories need financial support from the government and price support from buyers to go for eco-friendly practices.

Abrar Anwar, chief executive officer of Standard Chartered Bangladesh, said financing would not be available for factories if they are not eco-friendly.

Mamun Rashid, chairman of Financial Excellence Ltd, and Mrinal Sircar, programme manager of Bangladesh Water PaCT, also spoke.

** This article first appeared on the Daily Star here.