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Sustainability on the Sleeves

AI will forecast demand trends, companies will strive to use far less water/chemicals while the new-age environmentally aware consumer will buy clothes that do not have to be dumped after a short period
Chip Bergh, Presidentand CEO, Levi Strauss & Co | Print Edition: August 23, 2020
Sustainability on the Sleeves
Illustration by Raj Verma

Our industry is being forced to adopt to a new reality because of coronavirus. We're already seeing consumers think, act and buy differently, while holding greater expectations - and demanding more from - the brands they patronise. That's something we have to respond to. We know we will get through this and emerge stronger. But we also know that we have to earn the right to be the brand consumers turn to in this moment, because of our products, our history, our sustainability programmes and our values.

Conscious Consumption

In many elements of our business, and our world, the pandemic is speeding up transformations that were already under way. That applies to consumption habits as well. People are recognising the true cost of "fast fashion," which encourages people to buy a $4 tee shirt or dress, wear it a few times, then toss it onto the growing piles of discarded garments in landfills.

The pandemic is convincing more and more people - especially the young - that it's better to buy fewer, more versatile, higher quality products, items the consumers can imagine wearing for years before handing down to their children.

That plays to our strengths, and we'll be talking directly to consumers more about this in the coming months. Our products have always been built to last, and we have every intention of continuing to make great jeans and trucker jackets and other garments that people will hold on to for a long, long time. That's part of heritage. It's also how we meet consumers where they are today.

Looking to the Future, Together

You see an organisation's character in times of crisis. I've been so impressed by how our teams have responded to the coronavirus crisis. We are meeting the moment by coming together, focusing on the things we can control and playing to our strengths. At the same time, I've been thinking a lot about what matters beyond this crisis. Our fans in India - where we opened our first store 25 years ago - have given us permission to continue advocating for our values of equality and inclusivity. We see that as a privilege and will continue to use our voice and impact the more pressing issues of the day, whether it's supporting the Supreme Court decriminalising homosexuality or honouring women change-makers on International Women's Day.

We're also trying to help our communities. In April, we committed an initial $3 million to relief efforts, with focus on employees, community partners and supply chain workers, building on programmes already in place. In India, for instance, the Levi Strauss Foundation provided a grant to Swasti's relief work. In addition, we have shared, and will continue to update, augmented health and safety guidelines with our suppliers to help them keep their people safe through the pandemic.

The way forward is clear. We have to make great products as sustainably as possible. We have to drive innovation and respond to changing consumer behaviour. And we must continue to support those who need assistance. This is an opportunity to reimagine the world that could be.

Health, Safety and Sustainability

Consumers are going beyond shopping, though, and looking ever more closely at brands' sustainability practices. The toll of the pandemic cannot be understated, but at the same time, the images of blue skies over Delhi, dolphins swimming in the Venice canals and less crowded roads across the globe have highlighted the impact of the choices we make on the health of the planet and its people.

This for us is an opportunity to double down on our programmes on climate, water, workers, chemicals, and more. What we've found is that our pursuit of more sustainable products and processes has unlocked game-changing innovations, including our waterless finishing techniques, which have helped us save more than 3.5 billion litres of water over the past decade, and introduction of the world of "cottonised hemp," rainfed hemp fiber that is treated to look and feel just like cotton.

Even Project F.L.X., the operating model developed in our Eureka Innovation Lab that utilises laser technology to finish jeans, was born of an effort to use fewer chemicals in the finishing process. It does, in fact, reduce the number of chemicals needed from more than one thousand to about a dozen. It has also provided us with an agility model and digital sampling capabilities that can, we believe, reduce the time and materials needed for physical sampling. This will help us move from the industry's predominant sell-what-you-make business model to a make-what-you-sell model that brings us closer to the consumer, closer to trends, and makes a shorter go-to-market calendar possible - all with the same built-to-last quality Levi's is known for. Our "local for local" product engine in India, where we source 95 per cent of our products for the market and the Middle East, provides an ideal opportunity for us to build on this model.

Digital Transformation

Over the past decade, we have invested heavily to strengthen our position as an omni-channel retailer. As we've grown our direct-to-consumer channel, we've built our e-commerce and loyalty programmes, deepening our connection with our fans. We're also accelerating our overall digital transformation and maximising the use of artificial intelligence for forecasting.

And we've seen a tremendous response to our e-commerce offerings, such as our recent Levi's x Super Mario collaboration. We're not forgetting brick-and-mortar, however. Our stores remain a central focus, the upheaval of the pandemic notwithstanding. We're working to bring the digital and physical realms together to deliver a unique experience for consumers, wherever they interact with us. That is, after all, what they expect of us

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