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How Humanitarian Law is Serving as a Feeder to Sustainable Fashion

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Much like Wall Street funnels aspiring fashion designers, who spend several years in finance building their skills and amassing funds before starting a business, there’s an emerging trend of lawyers and human rights advocates making the switch to fashion.

Here’s a look at three stories.

From social good to affordable menswear
At 14 years old, Jason Grullón. and his mother, who sold fabric in the Dominican Republic, went on a shopping trip while in America. He had his eyes on a pair of Lucky jeans, having long been enticed by the interesting styles, which were unlike anything he had seen at home. But the jeans were pricey, and when he asked his mother for the pants, she turned to him and said, “I can’t buy you jeans that only cost seven dollars to make.”

The moment stuck with him, even when he went to Germany to pursue a law degree, with the intention to use it to support social impact programs back home in Latin America. Near the end of his schooling, he went on a tour of emerging startups in Berlin, when something clicked: He wanted to create a company embedded in social good, and he wanted that company to specialize in affordable menswear.

With this concept in mind, he founded Virtu, a menswear company focused on sustainable production.

Finding justice in fashion
Rebecca Ballard, founder of Maven Women, went straight to law school after completing her undergraduate degree. “You don’t always know what you want to do with your life, but I was interested in law because of social justice,” she said. “Law is and can be an amazing tool for justice in this country. And it really helps with understanding people, the way they work and their logic.”

Ballard worked at a number of nonprofits in Washington, D.C. doing advocacy work before she moved to Asia to practice litigation. In Hong Kong, she cut her teeth in nonprofit management and law, before returning to the states to do pro bono work on modern-day slavery and human trafficking. Being a lawyer, she realized, required a particular type of wardrobe. This suit-laden uniform was not only unattainable for many women, but it was also lacking in sustainable options — which led her to think about creating her own.

She ran the idea by her then-boyfriend, now-husband, who was an analyst at McKinsey. Relying on his business mind and her legal background, she started Maven Women.

“There was this idea that if people are going to be interested in socially conscious apparel, it will be hippie-inspired,” Ballard said. “If that’s the world you live in, that’s fantastic. But we need more options. I was trying to create something for the women who work in more traditional fields like law.”

Ballard said she uses the skills she gained as a lawyer every day on the job. It has helped her with the basics — like being punctual and thorough — plus her background writing law reviews has driven her to write for sustainable journals about her experience working in the fashion industry.

Likewise, Grullón said his law sensibility allows him to be savvy in making business decisions that avoid any trouble in the long run, especially when working across international barriers.

“We as lawyers have a very different approach to problems,” he said. “We don’t over-stress, we’re solution-oriented — that’s key for a startup, because when you’re building a company, it’s going to be full of issues.”

An intimate look at the supply chain
Maxine Bedat, founder of Zady, spent the years before founding her fashion company doing human rights law in international war crimes tribunals. During these work trips she was able to visit markets and witness clothing being made, an experience that changed the way she thought about fashion production.

“I got to see how clothing and products were sold and marketed,” she said during a panel at SXSW. “It gave me the experience to see how things were actually made and the sources of those things, and I fell in love with that.”

Working in human rights law allowed Bedat the opportunity to see new parts of the world and learn perspectives from community members along the way. That helped serve as a foundation for Zady, which the company describes as “a lifestyle destination for conscious consumers.” It operates on a concept called The New Standard, which focuses on the eco-friendly sourcing of materials like cotton, linen, wool and alpaca.

Kathleen Wright, founder of Piece & Co., a sustainable fabric sourcing company, typically visits the communities where her company’s fabrics are made once a quarter, most recently taking a trip to South Africa. Piece & Co. had recently placed an order of fabric from a group of garment makers for 1,500 yards of fabric, which allowed the market to hire several more workers. “That’s the gold standard for us: to provide steady work so that women can plan for their futures and stop working hand-to-mouth,” she said.

While Wright does not have a law degree (she graduated from business school at University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign), she worked at a nonprofit that provides micro-finance loans to aspiring artisans prior to starting Piece & Co., an experience that helped her better understand how to make grassroots change. However, her impact at the nonprofit felt nominal, and she wanted to find a way to better improve the lives of impoverished communities.

“I felt like, if I was going to make a difference, I needed to lead with the fashion industry, working from the ground up in the developing world,” she said. “At the end of the day, there are so many people who want to do right, that want to source better. They needed a way to do that.”

Helping support a value-driven culture
One of the largest barriers for sustainable fashion companies is getting consumers to wrap their heads around a higher price point. Ballard said that if they have a better understanding of how supply chains operate, and knew the stories of the people making their clothes, they would be increasingly discerning with their selections and willing to spend more.

“We have a completely warped idea about what clothes should cost in this country,” Ballard said. “There’s no way you can buy a new pair of pants for 10 dollars without hurting someone. If you’re paying that for brand new materials, they’re almost certainly going to be synthetic from sweatshops.”

Pair this with the fact that, according to a Nielsen study, 75 percent of millennials would be willing to pay extra for sustainable offerings, and there is a solid case for demand.

“Young people are really driven by their values,” Bedat said. “I don’t want that to run counter to their purchasing decisions. We want to be comfortable and stylish and perceived the right way, so you don’t want to have to sacrifice one or the other.

Grullón uses this concept to inspire shoppers, operating on three main tenets of social impact: better salary, traceability, and a 50/50 business model, in which the company reinvests half of its profits into long-term development projects in the communities of its partners.

“The idea was always to have a connection to how a product’s made and how that’s impacting the person’s life,” he said.

*This story first appeared on Glossy

eVent Fabrics Becomes bluesign® System Partner

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event-fabrics.jpgeVent fabrics, manufacturer of first fully waterproof and air permeable membrane technology for apparel, footwear and accessories, has become a bluesign® system partner.

As a bluesign system partner, eVent fabrics is committed to reducing its impact on people and the environment. The bluesign system, based on Input Stream Management, ensures that approved chemical products and raw materials are used in all steps of the manufacturing process and that substances posing risks to people and the environment are eliminated. On-site inspections verify the proper application of chemical products and raw materials in controlled processes and ensure the responsible use of resources to guarantee the highest level of consumer safety.

“We’re excited about this important achievement and what it means for not only our organization but our customers and consumers around the world. Becoming a bluesign system partner is one of many steps we are taking to continually improve our sustainability practices, streamline operations and bring innovative membrane solutions to the market,” said Chris Ferraro, General Manager, eVent fabrics.

It may be noted that a comprehensive bluesign audit confirmed that the company’s membrane manufacturing operations apply the bluesign system and meet high standards for worker safety, responsible use of resources, and that the company is continuously improving its environmental performance.

eVent fabrics’ membranes are distributed to textile specialists around the globe to create finished laminated textiles chosen by apparel, footwear and accessories brands.

*This story first appeared on Apparel Resources

Rights of Indian Leather Workers Systematically Violated

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Major footwear and garment brands react to serious human rights issues in their leather supply chain and promise collective action

Around 2,5 million workers in the Indian leather industry often face unacceptable working conditions that violate their human rights and seriously affect their health. Toxic chemicals used in tanneries often very negatively impact the health of the workers. Less known are the many labour and other human rights issues in the leather industry like wages below the stipulated minimum wage, child labour, the exploitation of home-based workers, the difficulty to organize in trade unions and the discrimination of Dalits (‘outcastes’).


DoLeatherWorkersMatter300‘Do leather workers matter?’

This is in short the plight of leather workers that is described in more detail in the report Do leather workers matter? Violating labour rights and environmental norms in India’s leather production.
The report explores labour conditions in the leather industry that are steeped into deep-rooted social inequalities in Indian society based on caste and gender discrimination. The main pillars of this study are literature research and field research at three production hubs that supply hides, leather, garments, accessories and footwear for export, namely Kolkata, Agra and the Vaniyambadi–Ambur cluster in Tamil Nadu. The report depicts labour conditions in a cross section of production units varying from homeworkers, tanneries, workshops in the informal sector to large modern export units. Of course these conditions do vary between production units.

Dalits (‘outcastes’) and Muslims make up the majority of the workforce in the leather industry. The low wages of the Dalit leather workers reflect their low status and the low status of their work in the leather industry, being dirty and polluting. In Tamil Nadu for example the official minimum wage early 2016 for leather workers is less than 2 euro per day, being less than half of the official wage of an apprentice in the textile industry. Often this minimum wage is not even paid.
Female homeworkers, responsible for a highly labour-intensive part of shoe production, are also among the most precarious workers. They face insecure and unprotected work, receive poverty wages and work under unsafe conditions. Moreover, children are often involved in leather production in India, mostly in the unorganized part of the sector, working in smaller tanneries and workshops.

Response of footwear and garment brands
A large range of major brands are sourcing footwear, leather garments, leather goods and accessories from India, which include H&M, C&A, Primark, Armani, ECCO, Esprit, Tommy Hilfiger, Zara, Mango, Walmart, Gabor, PUMA, Pentland, Prada and Marks & Spencer among many others. The report does however not look into the supply chains of specific brands, but more generally sketches human rights violations in leather and leather goods production in India.
India is the world’s second largest producer of footwear and leather garments. The footwear sector in India specializes in medium to high priced leather footwear, particularly men’s wear. Almost 90% of India’s footwear exports goes to the European Union.

A draft version of this paper was initially shared with a wide range of companies and CSR initiatives. In a joint statement 12 member companies of the Ethical Trading Initiative (UK) welcomed the ICN report and said that ‘taken together we recognize the very concerning issues in the leather supply chain’. They also said to agree that ‘there needs to be a collective response to these issues’ and ‘We commit to working with international and national stakeholders to develop a strategic response to the issues in our leather supply chain.’
In total 19 companies, including the 12 ETI members like C&A, H&M, Primark, Inditex, Marks & Spencer, Next, TESCO, Sainsbury and Pentland, reacted to the report as well as two CSR initiatives: the Leather Working Group and MVO Nederland (CSR Netherlands). Most companies recognize the urgency to address the issues identified in this research and some shared concrete commitments to combat adverse human rights and environmental impacts in their supply chain.

Recommendations
The report contains nine recommendations to companies and CSR initiatives in the leather and footwear industry on (the need for): due diligence, mapping of supply chains, transparency, long-term business relationships, collaboration to increase leverage, the mandatory written contracts and equal treatment and the importance of unions, collective bargaining, company level grievance mechanisms and space for civil society.

Download the full report here.

*This story first appeared on IndiaNet

Patagonia’s Board Shorts, Bikinis Are Now Fair Trade Certified

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Image courtesy: patagonia.com

Patagonia has taken an important step to change the surf and apparel industries, making its full line of board shorts and bikinis Fair Trade Certified™. Fair Trade offers direct and practical benefits to workers and is part of Patagonia’s broader drive to support workers, elevate communities and do work in a truly equitable way.

For every product made at a Fair Trade Certified factory, Patagonia pays a premium that workers can use to elevate their living standards, and the money goes directly to the people whose hands brought that specific product to life. In addition to the benefits paid directly to workers, Fair Trade Certified factories are required to adhere to Fair Trade USA’s strict standards for safe working conditions and environmental responsibility. Fair Trade benefits have a ripple effect that carries through to workers’ families and communities. Premiums from Patagonia purchases have been used to fund child-care programs and vouchers for medicine and household goods; at a factory in Los Angeles, California, workers voted for a dividend that equaled up to a week’s pay.

“For a long time now, there’s been too little transparency in the garment industry. When we buy clothing, we’re often oblivious to the reality of how it was made—not to mention the true human and ecological costs of the manufacturing process,” said Dave Rastovich, global surf activist at Patagonia. “The factories we rely on aren’t just full of machines; they’re also full of people with families, histories and futures that have been overlooked by the industry for far too long. Fair Trade extends a sense of value, acknowledgment and respect to members of the human family who are often pushed to the margins.”

The Fair Trade certification is one of the many points of difference that set Patagonia’s swim and surf collection apart. These products are field tested by some of the best surfers in the world and incorporate recycled nylon or recycled polyester fabrics, and the women’s swimsuits and bikinis are printed using a laser process that minimizes fabric scraps and waste. The men’s, women’s and kid’s board shorts and bikinis are all backed by Patagonia’s Ironclad Guarantee.

Patagonia’s 48 styles of men’s, women’s and kids’ Fair Trade Certified board shorts and bikinis are available at Patagonia retail stores, partner stores, and on Patagonia.com.

Learn more about Patagonia’s Fair Trade program and watch a video on Fair Trade here.
View photos from Fair Trade Certified factories here.
View hi-res images of Fair Trade Certified Swim and Surf Men’s product here.
View hi-res images of Fair Trade Certified Swim and Surf Women’s product here.

About Patagonia
Founded by Yvon Chouinard in 1973, Patagonia is an outdoor company based in Ventura, California. A certified B Corp, Patagonia’s mission is to build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. The company is recognized internationally for its commitment to authentic product quality and environmental activism, contributing over $82 million to date in grants and in-kind donations to date.

About Fair Trade USA
Fair Trade USA is a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable livelihoods for farmers and workers; protects fragile ecosystems; and builds strong, transparent supply chains through independent, third-party certification. Its trusted Fair Trade Certified™ label signifies that rigorous standards have been met in the production, trade and promotion of Fair Trade products from over 80 countries across the globe. Recognized as a leading social venture by the Clinton Global Initiatives, the Skoll Foundation and Ashoka, Fair Trade USA also provides critical capacity-building programs at origin, and educates consumers about the power of their purchase. Visit www.FairTradeUSA.org for more information.

*This story first appeared on Patagonia Works

Are Ethical Brands Greenwashing?

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5 questions to figure out which brands are LEGIT

As a responsible shopper looking to do the right thing, you might think if a brand is openly talking about their environmental or labor practices, they’re probably legit. And if they show you a picture of a happy worker or an NGO partner, it’s probably a sign of good intent and practices, right? Swipe that credit card.

WRONG!

Buyer beware — greenwashing is definitely a THING, and it’s not just the big fast fashion brands.

We’re always getting questions about H&M, Zara and others. Are they “greenwashing”? (i.e. exaggerating their environmental chops or social practices in an effort to make themselves seem sustainable, and even diverting attention away from negative practices like child labor, or the consumption-driven fast fashion model. Ew.)

But recently, savvy readers, like yourselves, have been asking more questions about the credentials of smaller “ethical fashion” or “eco-fashion” brands, and whether their practices add up to all their marketing.

Greenwashing is never good. But with the smaller “ethical” new kids on the block, it’s almost even more dangerous if they don’t stack up to their claims. It seeds pessimism and cynicism among consumers, just as a new vision of a sustainable industry is starting to gain traction.

So over the last month we did a mini experiment to dig into the practices of a few exciting and popular “ethical” brands, who outwardly celebrate their positive impact, intentions or transparency, and see what evidence they had to back up these assertions.

We looked at:

  • Everlane, the “radically transparent” basics brand
  • Warby Parker, the “social impact” eyeglasses company
  • Kowtow, a fairtrade, organic cotton brand making knitwear and basics from New Zealand
  • Krochet Kids, a social impact brand, empowering women in Uganda and Peru

We studied their websites and social media, contacted them through numerous channels, looked at publicly available records and everything else we could find. We did an intensive search beyond what a consumer could do in an afternoon, but without using any tools you wouldn’t have at the ready.

We went to these brands with a lot of questions surrounding labor practices, environmental practices, community engagement, management practices, size and business model, intention, innovation and transparency.

Below we’ve shared some highlights, AND, as we did this in-depth research, we pieced together the five questions we realized could help you sniff out greenwashing. (If you’re a nerd for this stuff like us, you can view everything we found on their updated brand pages on our Project JUST wiki)

So check out what we found and TRY these questions on for size:

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Curious about fibres?

1. First, check out what kind of fabrics / materials they are using.

Fabrics are an easy way to really change the impact of a supply chain for the better. PLUS it’s a super easy way for you as a shopper to know which brands are serious about changing the game. Raw materials are a big portion of the product, and consequently, its environmental and social impact. As a designer or a brand, committing to a restricted set of fabrics can be difficult — sustainable fabrics can be more expensive and not as easy to source — but it pays off in both your impact and performance in the end. So how did the brands we picked stack up?

Kowtow uses organic and fair trade cotton. Organic cotton is proven to be significantly better for people and planet, and fair trade means farmers and workers get fair wages for their work.

Krochet Kids uses some sustainable fabrics, but also uses acrylic and polyester (oil). They’re in the process of rolling out an organic cotton line.

While Everlane uses some natural fibres, none of them are certified from sustainable supply chains — you can read all about the impact of basic fabrics here. And, they also use synthetics like nylon (again, oil).

Warby Parker uses cellulose acetate, titanium, and stainless steel in its frames for both eyeglasses and sunglasses. Cellulose acetate is usually made from wood pulp. In February 2014, the brand reported via its Facebook page that Warby Parker frames are made of acetate that comes from a family-owned Italian manufacturer.

2. Second, do they have any certifications?

When you’re shopping, check out the tags — any symbols or certifications there? A certification offers a brand a rigorous program of standards and assessment, and a signal to shoppers of monitoring, high standards, and intention. A brand doesn’t have to have a certification to do good work, but often times, brands use them as a roadmap to build out a more sustainable supply chain. You have to be cautious though — some certifications aren’t that rigorous, or have major flaws in monitoring or auditing what’s actually happening on the ground. You can read more about certifications in our New Slang dictionary.

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Fair Trade Cotton UK

Survey says?

Kowtow has organic and fair trade certifications. Plain, simple and thorough.

Warby Parker is a BCorp, but we couldn’t find any information about what this means in terms of their environmental impact, or how they treat their workers. However, their recently released response to the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act means that the brand has now made its Code of Conduct publicly available (check out this release of new information on our Warby Parker brand page).

Krochet Kids is launching an organic line, and has their own special impact measurement tool that they use at each of their facilities.

Everlane doesn’t have any certifications that provide us with an easy signal to show that they’re trying, but it’s clear they like to set things up their own way. For their supply chain, they have three pillars of work: they started with transparency, are currently building their compliance, and sustainability is next. They do hold the factories they work with accountable to a 85% or higher score on the labor audit. If they don’t hit the mark, they step in with a corrective action plan, in partnership with their auditing firm, Intertek, to help.

Certifications aren’t for everyone, nor do they always work, but for the shopper and for us, it’s an easy way to know what standard a brand is holding themselves to, what are their intentions and to look into what’s actually happening to meet it.

3. Third, how transparent are they… really?

This basically comes down to what — and how much — they’re truly sharing with us. What’s on their website? Their social media? What data do they share to back up their claims of social or environmental impact?

Let’s stack ’em up.

Everlane: As fashion supply chain nerds, ever since this brand came out with their tagline, radical transparency, we’ve been curious to know what constituted “radical” from the information they shared. After all, “radical” by definition implies something beyond average. But, when we looked on the Everlane website, we didn’t really find much beyond where some of their factories were located, and what they made. What were we looking for? How they guaranteed fair wages and safe working conditions, what kinds of environmental policies they had in place, and their intentions for future improvement.

So we reached out to their team with a list of questions, and low and behold, got to sit down with the Founder & CEO, Michael Preysman —getting serious now.

He shared quite a bit of info with us including:

  • Their code of conduct
  • The average score of their factories on quarterly audits: 90.1%
  • The number of times a year their team visits their factories: 3
  • Their current lack of environmental policies, but their intent to work on this as the next phase in monitoring their supply chain
  • And lots more! (available for you to see behind a tiny little paywall, but trust us it’s worth the 5 bucks)

So why isn’t all this info available on their website?

Michael said (paraphrased) that they prefer not to reveal their work until it’s fully complete, so that the company can figure the right strategy to communicate the information to their customer, in a way that makes sense.

Legit?
You tell us. Given that these guys have shaken things up before, we’re excited to see what they churn out in the coming months to truly be “radical” in their supply chain practices.

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More than just transparent pricing?

Warby Parker: When it came to Warby Parker, we received not one answer to our questions. Not one! Between January and February 2017, we reached out six times to the PR company and twice to the brand, who then redirected us back to the PR company (head spinning emailing 😕).

This brand that claims positive social impact, and even has a BCorp certification (!), never answered our questions about whether they can trace their entire supply chain, where their suppliers are located, if they have a code of conduct, how much the workers in their supply chain are paid, how they monitor their social and environmental practices, and what their goals are to decrease their negative impact. In just the last two days, they did release a new set of info to comply with the California Transparency Act. Great – but we’ve still got questions.

Kowtow and Krochet Kids: These two brands both have a lot of information available on their website. Krochet Kids was willing to answer any question we threw their way, while Kowtow had enough info on their website and via their certifications to thoroughly answer our questions.

4. Do they express intention for improvement?

No brand is perfect. But given the major impact of fashion supply chains on people and planet, it’s important to at least have the intention and plans to continue to improve. Do they have goals on their website? Any plans that they share with the media, or consumers?

Krochet Kids told us all about their future plans. So did Everlane. Warby Parker — no answer and nothing available on their site. And finally Kowtow, who by committing to only use fair trade and organic cotton, has restricted their growth and made a sustainability commitment for the long run.

5. Fifth, and finally, will they get back to you / us / anyone?

When you ask a question — do they respond? And do they give you a straight answer?

After we emailed them this month, Everlane gave us a sit down with their founder & CEO. We had also reached out to them before with questions through various consumer channels, and had received responses — but not nearly as comprehensive as this. We appreciate this, but we also recognize that not everyone is afforded this kind of access. We hope they continue to strive to be as responsive to consumers as possible to attain this same standard of radical transparency.

Krochet Kids’ CEO and COO had a phone call with us after they answered our comprehensive survey. We were impressed with their brand, and especially with their willingness to share and open up to us.

Kowtow and Warby Parker both didn’t answer our repeated efforts to get in touch with them with our questions. That said, Kowtow has a ton of information about their brand and practices available on their website for anyone (not just supply chain dorks like us) to see. Warby Parker? Not so much.

So what did we learn?

In this day and age, with consumers buying products made by global supply chains, and with issues of human trafficking, child labor, worker abuse and environmental violations — the consumer should have a right to know how the product they’re paying for is made and be able to see the evidence to back it up.

And with brands like these, consumers should also know legitimately that the brand’s vision and proclaimed values match how they treat workers in their supply chain, and how they treat our planet. If you’re paying, you deserve to know.

So don’t get taken for a ride— keep searching, keep asking questions and tell your friends to ask, too. From our experience, you might even get to sit down with the CEO.

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*This story first appeared on New Co Shift

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

World’s Leading Apparel Brands Combine Forces to Transform Global Labor Conditions

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Today, a Social and Labor Convergence Project led by the world’s most well-known brands, retailers, industry groups and civil society was launched with the aim of improving working conditions in the global apparel and footwear manufacturing sector.

The project seeks to achieve real, sustainable change through the collective development of an industry-wide, standardized methodology for social and labor performance assessment in the apparel and footwear supply chains. The industry believes that through convergence of assessment tools, costs on duplicated auditing will be significantly reduced, and the money saved will instead be used to improve social welfare for millions of people employed in the sector.

This collaborative effort is being facilitated by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) and supported by leading organizations and companies, both SAC members and non-members. Signatories to the public statement include Nike, H&M, VFc-Timberland, Levi Strauss & Co., PVH Corp., Gap Inc., Target, Columbia Sportswear Co. and adidas Group, standard holding organisation WRAP, the non‐profit supply chain improvement experts Sedex, NGO Solidaridad, auditing firms Bureau Veritas and SGS, the International Apparel Federation and many others stakeholders at all levels in the value chain. The signatories invite other stakeholders to join this collaborative effort.

The Social and Labor Convergence Project follows the development of a successful assessment framework created by the SAC and its members.  The initiative seeks to respond to the calls from the European Commission, the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) and a number of European countries for a standardized global approach to social and labor assessment.

Baptiste Carriere-Pradal, Vice-President Europe of SAC says: “The industry, having heard the call from so many different stakeholders, is convinced that the time has come to create greater alignment. We want to check less and act more: This initiative will accelerate a race to the top in social impacts within apparel and footwear manufacturing countries by shifting resources away from redundant and misaligned assessments to performance improvement and enhanced transparency. Convergence is the key to successfully increase transparency and to improve working conditions in global supply chains.”

“As a company with a pioneering record on labor rights and a long history of industry collaboration, we welcome the opportunity to explore how to support more effective and efficient ways to raise labor standards in the apparel supply chain.” Michael Kobori, VP of Sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co.

“Social and labor assessment convergence to get to “one assessment” is an often repeated request of Sedex members, especially manufacturers, which is why Sedex is delighted to be a part of this new project.” Jonathan Ivelaw-Chapman, CEO at Sedex

Public Statement – Amsterdam, 21st October 2015

We, signatories to this Statement, recognize that the proliferation of differing codes, audits, protocols and approaches are hampering the improvement of social and labor performance within global supply chains.  We believe that there is both a need and an opportunity for collaboration. Our common goal is to drive opportunities for harmonization and convergence in social auditing, as a means to improve social performance in global supply chains.  We call on others to join us.

Since the rise of social auditing in the apparel and footwear supply chain more than twenty years ago, we have seen the number of social audit standards and methods increase dramatically, some with only minor differences. With brands and retailers each applying their own slightly different standards, manufacturers are allocating valuable resources to manage a steady stream of audits.  In addition to contributing to “audit fatigue,” this duplication reduces the value of audits and consumes resources that could otherwise be applied to making improvements.

Some initiatives have recently highlighted the need for broader acceptance of shared assessment approaches and methods.  Many voices from government, industry, and non-profit organizations are calling for a convergence of social and labor auditing practices in the supply chain.

We, the signatories, understand that the solutions to these problems will require close co-operation between all tiers of the supply chain, as well as with multi-stakeholder initiatives that have developed assessment tools and methods.  We call for collaboration among these actors to reach a common social assessment standard, method or tool for social and labor performance measurement in apparel and footwear supply chains.  We believe that this effort could later be applied to other industries.

A new dialogue will enable the industry to:

  • Enhance transparency while dramatically reducing the number of social and labor assessments in our industry;
  • Shift financial resources away from assessment to performance improvement;
  • Accelerate a race to the top in social impacts within apparel and footwear manufacturing countries.

The collaboration will work under the umbrella of the “Social and Labor Convergence Project”, facilitated by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.  The SAC is committed to facilitate this project in an equal partnership approach by bringing together all segments of the value chain, including manufacturers, brands, retailers, non-governmental organization, workers unions, government representation, auditing firms and all relevant stakeholders, and by working with other multi-stakeholder initiatives which have developed assessment tools and methods.

We, the signatories, acknowledge that convergence is a critical enabler for increasing transparency and improving working conditions in global supply chains.  We are committed to this goal and will focus the next six months to clarify the scope, desired outcomes and success criteria for this collaboration. We urge others to enter into our collaboration with us – and hasten the transition to harmonization, convergence in social auditing across the apparel and footwear supply chain.

Organizations that would be interested to participate in this initiative should contact baptiste@apparelcoalition.org.

Brands / Retailers

  • adidas Group
  • Asics
  • Bestseller
  • Burton
  • Columbia Sportswear Co.
  • Gap Inc.
  • H&M
  • IC Group
  • Inditex
  • Levi Strauss & Co.
  • MEC
  • Nike
  • Patagonia
  • Puma
  • PVH Corp.
  • REI
  • Target
  • VFC- Timberland

Manufacturers

  • Avery Dennison
  • W.L. Gore & Associates, Fabrics Division
  • Hanbo
  • L&E International, Ltd.

Organizations – NGO

  • European Outdoor Group (EOG)
  • International Apparel Federation (IAF)
  • IDH
  • Outdoor Industry Association (OIA)
  • Sedex
  • Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC)
  • Solidaridad
  • Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP)

Auditing Firms

  • Bureau Veritas
  • Control Union
  • SGS

*This story first appeared here.