Q&A with Levi’s MD: “Climate change is the existential crisis of our time”

what Levi’s is doing in this space within the East Asia Pacific region?

Nuholt Huisamen: Climate change is the existential crisis of our time and poses a threat to commerce and communities around the globe. It is our shared responsibility to act. When we speak of sustainability, we are talking about operating and using resources in a way that can be continued in perpetuity without harming people, the planet, or future generations. 

All of us at Levi Strauss & Co. are committed to doing our part and our overall sustainability work is focused on three pillars: climate, consumption, and community. We are reducing our carbon footprint and advocating for comprehensive climate action, implementing this in many aspects of our business —  from reducing energy use and emissions in our own operations and supply chain, to supporting biodiversity and reducing waste, especially single-use plastics.

While our sustainability initiatives are global, we have specific initiatives for in-market sustainability needs. In Asia, we use barge transport along rivers where possible, producing lower emissions as compared to trucking. In Singapore, we plan to reduce paper-based on-product packaging by eliminating hang tags in Levi’s Red Tab Tier 2 and Tier 3 products by 30 per cent, by the end of 2022. We also plan to eliminate plastic barbs in Levi’s mainline products by the end of 2023.

IR: In terms of the 2025 sustainability goals, how is the company progressing in this regard, and how are things going in the East Asia Pacific region? We are seeing more companies lead with science-based targets for net zero carbon goals and reduction of GHG emissions. What is the brand doing in this regard?

NH: We will continue to find ways to use less water, reduce emissions, better support workers, reduce waste and become more circular in our products and practices. These form the basis of our long-term commitment towards achieving tangible results in climate, consumption and community through our dedication to industry-leading science-based targets, aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. We are aiming to see a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and implement 100 per cent renewable electricity in all our owned-and-operated facilities by 2025. 

IR: There are some ongoing campaigns such as the Buy Better Wear Longer, Water<Less and WellThread initiatives that are part of the global sustainability strategy. Could you give us an insight into how it’s being implemented for this region? 

NH: Buy Better, Wear Longer was launched in 2021 and is a global campaign that encourages consumers to be more mindful of their purchasing decisions, while seeking to extend the life cycle of our products.

We collaborated with Singapore’s Lasalle College of the Arts to raise awareness on overconsumption and encourage intentional purchasing habits. We saw great ideas and quality work by students from the School of Fashion on upcycling denim jeans and creating social content. In Indonesia, we are engaging young and passionate social entrepreneurs yearning to change people’s mindsets on sustainability. Our multi-platform Buy Better, Wear Longer campaign featured Melati Wijsen, a 20-year-old Indonesian social entrepreneur who founded a successful non-profit campaign seeking to reduce plastic bags in Bali. We are seeing very encouraging results from our efforts in empowering the newer generation to make more conscious choices. 

Launched in 2011, Water<Less  seeks to halve the amount of water we use in manufacturing in highly stressed areas, and reduces water use in the manufacturing stages of fabric development and garment finishing. So far, we have established and scaled our Water<Less finishing techniques and water recycling practices in our supply chain. Both of these feed into our 2025 Water Action strategy.

WellThread is a testbed that allows us to validate new materials and methods for sustainable design through small-scale production. Some of the materials include alternative, less water-intensive fibres, garments that feature fully traceable rain-fed linen, cottonized hemp, and a variety of recycled and recyclable materials. We have set aside a small part of our product assortment to validate and scale new and sustainable components that can potentially be integrated into our mainline products. An example is an innovative denim featuring Circulose fibre by Re:NewCell, containing a blend of organic cotton and fibre spun from discarded denim. 

IR: The circular economy is now becoming a focal point for the textile industry as a whole. What is your take on this in terms of Levi’s role in this space?

NH: Circularity is a major part of Levi Strauss & Co.’s ongoing sustainability commitments and we have implemented this on a large scale across the entire company. Circularity is not just about the end life cycle of a product, but also takes into account our products’ long-term impact, their manufacturing process, the consumer journey, and product usage. 

As an industry leader, we have always been committed to contributing to a just society and a better world. This means looking past the traditional take-make-waste model and moving towards a circular economy, where nothing is wasted in the manufacturing, use, and reuse of products. To do this, we are engaging consumers, peers and industry groups in a shared journey towards a sustainable future. 

An example of our efforts in this space is Levi’s Secondhand, a buy-back and resale platform that extends our products’ lifetime value – customers can exchange their old jeans for gift cards. This also capitalises on the growing appeal of thrifting and vintage denim, especially among Gen Z consumers.

IR:  When it comes to sustainable production practices, how does the company make actionable recommendations in this regard?

NH: Our goal is to pave our way to a zero waste future, and we met our pledge to reach zero waste discharge by 2020. As part of the global apparel industry, we are keenly aware of our responsibility to make a real, positive impact on the environment. Sustainable production practices are integrated into our business, e.g. reducing waste through supply chain and operations to simplify the ways in which consumers can improve their consumption and recycling habits. 

Examples of this are seen in our robust and responsible waste recycling and donation program across our production facilities and retail outlets, using biodegradable and recycled materials to eliminate single-use plastics and polybags in e-commerce and distribution centres, and predictive forecasting that leverages AI and digitisation to produce according to demand.

We were among the first apparel companies to establish a Restricted Substances list to reduce the impact of chemical waste and industrial water pollution, and remain a member of the Joint Roadmap Toward Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals.

We aim to shift the apparel industry towards a proactive approach to zero waste by eliminating hazardous chemicals before they ever reach production facilities. We’re pushing for safer production practices through the Screened Chemistry program and the ZDHC Manufacturing Restricted Substances list to encourage companies to select safer chemical options and better control in the supply chain.

IR: We are seeing a range of technologies being adopted in the traceability space in fashion like RFID tags and blockchain-related initiatives. What is Levi’s doing in that space?  

NH: Companies have a responsibility to make green claims that are measurable and verifiable so that consumers can make an informed decision about the products that they choose to put their dollar vote towards. 

At Levi Strauss & Co., pegging our objectives to science-based targets, reviewing and reporting on the outcome of our sustainability initiatives, and adapting to new changes in the movement towards a greener world are some of the ways we’re making good on our claims. 

Adopting innovative technologies such as RFID, NFC and blockchain to ensure that companies deliver on traceable green claims are initiatives that Levi Strauss & Co. has already begun to implement. In 2019, we partnered with the New America think tank and ConsenSys to launch a two-year blockchain initiative that tracks worker-well being at factories in our supply chain. 

We have also tagged our apparel with NFCs and RFIDs to optimise retail performance. As the nascent technology develops, we’ll continue to explore ways to synergise sustainability initiatives with innovative tools to ensure that our green claims remain measurable and verifiable. 

IR: Finally, how do you see things progressing in 2022? Are there any significant changes or developments that you could share with us regarding the operations of the company in the region?

NH: In 2022, our focus will be to deliver quantifiable impact through our sustainability programs, ensure transparency in our operations, and satisfy the demands of today’s consumers, investors, and employees.

Levi Strauss & Co. will continue to push for a safer supply chain and innovate on sustainable materials and design. This will set the future direction for the company and our approach to developing sustainable products and moving towards circular products and practices. 

We’ll also continue using our scale, reach and platform to advocate for positive change in the textile and apparel industry and address overconsumption. We will continue pro-actively engaging consumers, peers and industry groups and drive collaborations on our journey to a greener future.

Across the board, we are doubling down on our sustainability investments, because our people and our planet can’t afford anything less, and because we know that we only truly succeed if we leave the planet better than we found it. 

This is how we meet the moment and prepare for the long-term. It’s how we build a stronger company and a stronger society. And it’s how we demonstrate that we not only intend to be around for another 168 years, but that we want to be worthy of doing so. 

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