A. How did you find this company?
I recently saw a documentation presenting projects of different companies in the textile industry trying to improve the sustainability of their working practices. The documentation revealed that Levis Strauss & Co. was the first multinational clothing company to establish a comprehensive workplace code of conduct for their manufacturing suppliers. Already while watching the report was I wary about to what degree their intentions were subject to marketing intentions and improving their image. This project causes a good occasion to further read into the subject and get more insight into the purposes of their activities.
B. What are the main facts about its activities?
Levi Strauss & Co. is a privately held American apparel company that was founded in 1853 by Levi Strauss. The brand is worldwide known for its Levi’s brand of denim jeans. Levi Strauss and tailor Jacob Davis received a U.S. patent in 1873 to make the first riveted men’s work pants of denim, the first blue jeans. Today, the company is still owned by descendants of Levi Strauss.
The company experienced significant growth in its business during the 1960 and 1970s as a more casual look became a world wide fashion trend which served as a catalyst for the brand. Between 1964 and 1974, the company managed to expand its manufacturing capacity from 16 plants to more than 63 plants in the United States and 24 overseas.
In 1986, the company launched The Dockers brand, which is sold largely through department store chains. Later in the 1990s, the company was facing competition from other brands and cheaper products from overseas, which lead to the closure of some of its US factories and the start of using offshore subcontracting agreements. As denim sales began to fade, it was The Dockers brand which helped the company to grow through the mid-1990s.
Today, most Levi’s jeans are made outside the United States. Only a few of the higher end, more expensive styles are still made in the U.S. It is a worldwide corporation divided into three geographic regions: Americas, Europe, and Middle East and Africa. The firm employs approximately 10,500 people worldwide and generates a net income of about $157 million. Today, their products are sold under the Levis’s, Dockers, Denizen, and Signature brand.
C. What are the Ethical challenges this company is addressing?
The company is addressing a good deal of different ethical challenges. Those challenges can be categorized in three main groups: people, planet and products.
Levi Strauss & Co., in partnership with the Levi Strauss Foundation, addresses different challenges concerning the people affected within and outside the company:
The company approaches the ethical dilemma of cost cutting versus the human rights of its workers by their introduction of their Terms of Engagement (TOE), a comprehensive workplace code of conduct for their manufacturing supplier. Those terms specify the requirements by which all of their contract factories and licensees must abide. Those include ethical standards, legal requirements, environmental requirements and community involvement. Furthermore do they set out employment standards which specifically address issues of child labour, forced labour, disciplinary practices etc.
Levi Strauss & Co. had begun their efforts concerning this topic back in 1982. 30 years later, they maintained persistent and in establishing best practices that they can share with other companies in the prevention, education, treatment and care for employees and their families. This program provides innovative and interactive in-person an online prevention education, while striving to improve access to voluntary and confidential HIV testing, treatment and care.
The company has established different projects where they show their involvement in the communities. For example full-time employees are offered up to five hours per month paid time off to volunteer at a charitable organization of their choice. Another is the Levi Strauss Foundation that provides grants to non-profit organizations where employees volunteer or serve on boards.
The company is concerned about the sustainability through the whole lifecycle of their products. Thereby they are focusing on two key phases: cotton and consumer use and to reduce the impact in four areas critical to clothing manufacture: energy, water, chemicals and materials. For the former, they are establishing education plans and running R&D projects to improve the manufacture of the cotton and the consumer usage. For the latter, they follow different commitments and projects like achieving carbon neutrality and moving to the use of 100% renewable energy in their operations, decreasing water usage and improving water quality in significant, measurable ways, minimizing the environmental impact from chemicals and becoming a zero-waste company. They are engaged in many projects which show their efforts to comply with their commitments.
Levi Strauss & Co. is addressing the impact their products have on the environment. The goal of their efforts is to build sustainability into every product they make. Therefore, they started in the early 1990s to approach this dilemma by setting up different measuring regulations to improve their working practices. For example did they introduce a Restricted Substance List which contains harmful chemicals that the manufacturers and suppliers cannot use. They were also leaders in introducing jeans made from organic cotton and recycled denim that use packaging made from recycled materials. Another project is their lifecycle assessment that is aiming to reduce the greenhouse gases and to restore the environment.
D. What makes this company really inspiring to you and why would you trust it?
First of all I have to say that I do not completely trust in all of their attemps of the various dilemmas they approach. But what inspires me about the company is that they addressing the different ethical values much more than other companies in the textile industry. It is always difficult to draw the line on to what degree a company is ethical in their practices. But in my opinion, it is also important to highlight the efforts a company undertakes, instead of only criticizing and highlighting their misbehaviour. Because in the end, there is always room to do more.
I think a first important step in attempting to address ethical dilemmas is to acknowledge the limits that those efforts have. Levi Strauss & Co. is doing that fairly good by admitting the difficulties of their supervision possibilities over there suppliers as well as within their own manufactures for example when it comes to environments where corruption and different forms of regimes are at present. They admit that their resources are just too little to be able to guarantee 100% compliance with their rules and regulations.
I also find it important that a company is transparent about their efforts and the results of their attempts. Levi Strauss & Co. is doing that by composing reports together with external parties that somehow have the role of supervision.
E.What are the possible challenges facing the company in the future and how do you think this company may improve?
The company faced a huge decline in their demand over the last 20 years which lead to a huge layoff of around 20’000 people. In such difficult times, it is very hard to follow your vision and ethical principles since the focus usually shift towards their “core business” and the goal of linking profitability with ethical principles is at risk to become subsidiary. So one of the challenges the company is facing in the future is to manage and especially to recognize that those two objectives are not necessary conflicting. It will probably just require more effort than when they had more resources available.
Another challenge that the company is facing is the next level of responsibility for sustainability. It requires a long-term plan with measurable, targeted milestones, honest self- and third party assessment, thoughtful product development and innovative public policy. The company is currently working with partners to develop the next generation of global standards and goals. I think this company can improve since they have somewhat the leadership and good experience within different areas concerning ethical dilemmas and I think that it is a key factor of their mission and vision to remain and further improve their ethical standards.