Levi’s has been the go-to cool denim brand for over 50 years, and gets our middling score of “It’s a Start” for its efforts, but there is still work to do. This article is based on the published in February 2022.
Cool and comfy, but not quite there
For over 50 years, Levi’s has been a name synonymous with rock’n’roll, counterculture, and effortless style. It is proof of enduring brand power that its denim continues to trade high in the currency of cool. But is this household name doing anything to ensure its jeans are not just on-trend, but ethical and sustainable too? How ethical is Levi’s?
With a reported revenue of US$5.8bn in 2021 by parent company Levi Strauss & Co, it doesn’t require much imagination to picture the vast, global production machine behind these huge profits. Manufacturing on such a large scale is bound to have far-reaching consequences.
In 1991, Levi’s developed Living Our Values—a Code of Conduct to guide ethical production throughout the denim giant’s supply chain. Levi’s claims the original document was landmark in the fashion industry, and has influenced many other apparel companies to adopt similar codes.
So, does it work? Let’s compare principles with practice.
A product life cycle study commissioned by Levi’s showed that for one of its core products—Levi’s® 501® Medium Stonewash jeans—37% of their climate impact and 23% of water consumption occurred during the consumer care phase. Levi’s has taken this as a call to action to shift consumer attitudes away from fast fashion based consumption and encourage customers to treat Levi’s jeans as a long-term investment. So how has this philosophy influenced its practices?
Levi’s has made strong commitments to sustainable denim production, including incorporating more eco-friendly materials like reconstituted cotton, and significantly reducing water use, saying in its 2025 Water Action Strategy report “we commit to reducing the amount of water we use for manufacturing in areas of high water stress by 50 percent by 2025 against a 2018 baseline.” It has also set a science-based target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions generated from its own operations and supply chain and it is on track to meet its target.
In 2012, Greenpeace named and shamed Levi’s for connections to dangerous water pollution in Mexico in their Toxic Threads report. Levi’s then pledged to reduce the hazardous chemicals used to dye and treat its clothing, and aimed for the elimination of hazardous chemicals by 2020, which it has now achieved with Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals Group (ZDHC) across most of its supply chain. Thanks to all of this effort, we have given Levi’s a “Good” rating for the environment.
Levi’s rates “Not Good Enough” for labour. It scored a mid range 41-50% in Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index, as it traces most of its supply chain including all of the final stage of production. It also implements gender equality and empowerment initiatives in its supply chain.
Despite these positive steps, there’s an area of the Levi’s supply chain that requires attention. Almost none of its supply chain is certified by labour standards which ensure worker health and safety, and Levi’s has made little progress towards ensuring the payment of a living wage for its workers across the supply chain. Given its huge profits, we think the brand could be doing far better on this front.
Levi’s animal welfare is “Not Good Enough”. It does not use fur, angora, or other exotic animal skin or hair. Its current Animal Welfare Policy insists that the supply chains for the sourcing of all animal products must be traceable where practicable to ensure humane practices. Despite this, it does still use leather, down feather, and wool without stating their sources, but states it supports wool from non-mulesed sheep and will work to “consolidate its wool sourcing accordingly, as it becomes commercially viable.”
We rate Levi’s as “It’s a Start” overall based on our own research. Our rating reflects the company’s ambition and ingenuity, particularly the continued headway it’s making with regards to environmentally sustainable production methods. Levi’s is committed to producing quality, hard-wearing products. With that in mind, along with some denim-care-know-how, investing in a pair of timelessly designed Levi’s jeans can be a worthwhile investment—especially if you find them second hand and extend their life. But if you want to invest in a brand that is more ethical and sustainable on all fronts, we have picked some alternatives for you.