For over fifty years, Levi’s have been a name synonymous with rock ‘n’ roll, counterculture and effortless style. It’s proof of enduring brand power that their 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?
With a reported revenue of $4.6 billion US in 2016 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 will have far-reaching consequences.
In 1991 Levi’s developed their Terms of Engagement – a code of conduct to guide ethical production throughout the denim giant’s supply chain. Levi’s claim the 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.
Environmental Impact: Good
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 have taken this as a call to action to shift consumer attitudes away from fast-fashion based consumption and encourae customers to treat Levi’s jeans as a long-term investment. So how has this philosophy influenced their practices?
Levi’s have made strong commitments to sustainable denim production, including significantly reducing their water use. By 2020, the Levi’s brand aims to make 80 percent of its products using Water<Less™ technique. Levi’s have set a 25% reduction target for greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 for its direct emissions and consumed electricity. They are also pioneer members of the Better Cotton Initiative.
In 2012, Greenpeace named and shamed Levi’s for connections to dangerous water pollution in Mexico in their ‘Toxic Threads’ report. Levi’s have since pledged to reduce the hazardous chemicals used to dye and treat their clothing, and are aiming for the elimination of hazardous chemicals by 2020.
Labour Conditions: It’s A Start
Levi’s are a few steps ahead of other fashion giants when it comes human rights and worker welfare. They topped Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index and earned a “B+” in the 2018 Australian Fashion Report, which looks at criteria including payment of a living wage, transparency and worker empowerment initiatives. Levi’s trace all of its supply chain, publicly lists its suppliers and audits most of its facilities over a two-year period.
Despite these positive steps, there’s an area of Levi’s supply chain that requires their attention. The International Transport Workers’ Federation released a report recently highlighting exploitation and unsafe conditions at Madagascar’s Port of Toamasina, a major exporting hub for the brand. As a major brand operating in Madagascar, Levi’s has a responsibility for the conditions under which their products are handled, and they certainly have the means and influence to enact real change. Levi’s have also made little progress towards ensuring the payment of a living wage for its workers across the supply chain. Given their huge profits, we think they could be doing better on this front.
Animal Welfare: It’s a Start
Levi’s does not use fur, angora, shearling, karakul or other exotic animal skin or hair. Their 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. Levi’s source their wool from certified non-mulesed sheep, which is a positive step. They do, however, use leather and down feather without stating their sources.