Podcast 85, MICHAEL KOBORI - HOW SUSTAINABLE IS LEVI'S?
EPISODE 85 FEATURES MICHAEL KOBORI
Think of a jeans brand. I bet it’s Levi’s. There of course hundreds, maybe thousands of denim companies today. Denim has been thoroughly disrupted. But the original was Levi’s…
Blue jeans were invented by Jacob Davis and Levis Strauss in the 1870s. They were worn by gold miners and cowboys. Then James Dean, Marlon Brando, American teenagers and rock stars. If you want to talk about the history of cool, Levi’s was there. From Debbie Harry and The Ramones to Jim Morrison, even James Brown - they all wore Levi’s.
And as High Snobiety points out, “Lest we forget the impact of Levi’s on hip-hop music: 501s were the go-to uniform for Run DMC and The Beastie Boys, and are a typical mention in rap songs ranging throughout the past 30 years.”
Women’s Levi’s were introduced in 1934, which if you think about it is quite radical - a decade earlier women in any kind of trousers were considered scandalous. And in certain places, including some offices and restaurants, women weren’t allowed to wear trousers until the ‘60s. That is an actual fact. I know.
The company is also well-known for promoting progressive causes. They were one of the earliest private sector institutions to support LGBTQ advocacy, and spoke out against the presidency of Donald Trump by donating $1 million to support immigration and LGBTQ rights. In 2018, CEO Chip Bergh published an Op-ed in Fortune magazine endorsing gun control.
But how sustainable is Levi’s? This week, we hear from Levi’s Vice-President of Sustainability, MICHAEL KOBORI. He started out in human rights, and joined Levi’s in 1995. Over the years, he has seen the conversation move from sweatshops and corporate social responsibility (CSR) to sustainable materials, life cycle assessments and worker wellbeing.
Michael is a director of the (US) Cotton Board and council member of the Better Cotton Initiative. He is a member of the President’s Leadership Council of The Asia Foundation. He previously served on the Boards of the Levi Strauss Foundation and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition; and on the Advisory Board of the ILO’s Better Work program. He lectures at Berkeley. Also, his customised denim jacket is awesome…
WHAT WE TALK ABOUT…
DURABILITY Levi’s were originally built to last “literally for 100 years.” says Michael. The rivets were added to make the trousers stronger at the pressure points where they tended to tear and wear. But somewhere along the line, FASHION decided that it preferred jeans to look aged before their time. Don’t just blame the jeans companies - blame culture, blame yourself! Have you ever bought a pair of distressed denim jeans? How about stonewashed? Or this tremendously silly black jeans with both knees slashed? We now pay good money for jeans that have been artificially aged to look bad, or at least old. And the op shops teem with unwanted denim. The world’s gone mad.
CHIP BERG’S DIRTY DENIM In 2014, Chip Bergh, Levi’s CEO, said he hadn’t washed his jeans in a year. Michael says he still hasn’t washed them. In 2013, Levi’s Life Cycle Assessment of a pair of 501s found that 23% of their lifetime water footprint came from customer use (washing your jeans).
GOING PUBLIC. Levi’s first listed its shares in the 1970s, but was taken private in 1985 through a leveraged buyout led by descendants of Strauss. In March 2019, Levi’s again went public. According to the NYT: “Levi’s has been undergoing a turnaround for the better part of the past decade under Mr. Bergh, who joined the company in 2011. The company, based in San Francisco, has yet to return to its peak of the 1990s, but the executive has overseen an increase in sales to $5.6 billion last year, with net profit of $285 million.”
LEVI’S TAILOR SHOP. Now you can customise and repair your denim pieces with the help of Levi’s expert tailors. Find the service in Australia here Michael’s jacket is adorned with peace sign, snoopy emblems, and his embroidered name. “It becomes something that you want to keep for the rest of your life,” he says.
LIFE CYCLE ASSESSMENT (LCA) is a globally used and accepted method for assessing environmental impacts of a product's life cycle from cradle to grave, including raw material extraction, material processing, product manufacture, distribution, use, disposal and recycling. LCAs are now de rigeur for companies taking sustainability seriously, but it wasn’t always so. Levi’s was a front-runner. They commissioned an LCA into a set of core products back in 2007. Read their 2013 report here.
“Washing every 10 times a product is worn instead of every 2 times reduces energy use, climate change impact, and water intake by up to 80%.” - Levi’s The Life Cycle of a Jean
You can read all about the BETTER COTTON INITIATIVE here.
And find the ZDHC Roadmap to Zero Programme here.
FACTORIES & THE MOVE OFF SHORE. “We try to locate production close to our markets,” says Michael, “we produce in 45 different countries.” The move offshore happened across the industry in the 1990s.
Levi’s was in the news in 1990 when it closed its San Antonio, Texas, factory and relocated operations to Costa Rica. The plant was Levi’s largest in the US and was not unionised. 1,150 workers lost their jobs, many with less than 24 hrs notice. 86 % were female and 92 % Latinos. Many received less than 24-hours notice. Denied useful retraining and other assistance, they lost not only their jobs but their peace of mind. This was the SWEATSHOPS ERA - although Naomi Klein didn’t published her explosive book No Logo until 1999. “it was a time when there was a lot of coverage about working conditions,” recalls Michael, who started out in human rights. “I joined the company in 1995, I had just got out of policy school, but I had spent 10 years before that working in the not-for-profit sector.” A professor convinced him that he could make more of a difference in the business sector.
THE ASIA FOUNDATION is a nonprofit international development organisation committed to improving lives across a dynamic and developing Asia. It’s head quartered in San Francisco. Find them here.
SUPPLIER CODES OF CONDUCT “Levi’s was the first multi-national company to establish a comprehensive code that covered labour, health and safety and environmental issues,” says Michael. “People literally ridiculed us at the time for getting involved in an area then not considered a corporate responsibility.” No one’s laughing now.
CLIMATE TARGETS Levi’s goal is a 40% reduction by 2025.
THE AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT’S NON-GOALS It’s worth noting that the Australian government’s goal is nowhere near that. The Paris agreement goal is between 26 and 28% by 2030, however the Australian government says: “Achieving that target may prove challenging. We’d need to know where our emissions are coming from and have effective policies to reduce those emissions.” Well, hello - why don’t you start there then? Because time is running out.
HEMP has about half of the environmental footprint of cotton, says Michael. “It’s a more sustainable fibre we’re starting to look at, and work out how do we scale it.” Read about their cottonized-hemp fabric here.
EVRNU is American company pioneering fibre-to-fibre recycling.
LEVI’S COLLABORATORY began with 15 entrepreneurs looking at water issues. Last year it was climate issues. Each year, the Collaboratory focuses on a different sustainability challenge facing the apparel industry. Fellows come together for a 3-day Workshop Weekend at LS&Co.’s Eureka Innovation Lab and have the opportunity to apply for up to $50,000 in funding to pursue bold solutions.
A NOTE ON OUR MUSIC: IT IS BY OUR FRIEND MONTAIGNE, WHO SANG A SPECIAL ACOUSTIC VERSION OF "BECAUSE I LOVE YOU" JUST FOR US. IT'S FROM HER ALBUM GLORIOUS HEIGHTS.
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Until next time,