Levi's makes life-cycle assessment part of its fabric

Levi's makes life-cycle assessment part of its fabric

Image courtesy of Levi Strauss & Co.

Life-cycle assessment (LCA) tools began increasing in popularity a few years ago as sustainability-minded companies sought ways not only to better understand their products and mitigate their impacts, but also to communicate their efforts to consumers. These tools are data management systems that help companies measure and track the impacts of products from the design stage to end-of-life.

Rather than using ready-made LCA software, companies such as Levi Strauss & Co. began building their own proprietary tools to enable them to better measure their unique inputs, outputs and impacts. (In Levi's case, it commissioned PE Americas to conduct the original lifecycle-analysis study -- led by Thomas P. Gloria -- of a Levi’s 501 jean and Dockers Khaki back in 2007. Since then, Levi's has worked with Gloria, now owner of Industrial Ecology Consultants, to develop and evolve the Evaluate tool.)

Now Levi's is working to take LCA out of the sustainability silo and into the design room. The company's clothing designers are using its Evaluate tool on a daily basis to make decisions about things like fabric choices, washes and dyes.

"As designers, we only know what we know and so often the decisions we make about what we design and the materials we use are made absent of understanding the environmental impacts of those choices," says Paul Dillinger, senior director of global design for Levi's Dockers brand.

Dillinger and his team can use Evaluate to reach down to the material level to assess the impacts of various components. The design group recently went through the process of evaluating "chassis" fabrics -- core fabrics from which a line is made -- and were able to use Evaluate for the first time to help make design decisions.  

"Typically we evaluate fabrics with respect to quality, price, and versatility, but do we know that they're sustainably made?" Dillinger explains. "Have they been woven, spun, dyed in ways that are appropriate? Before Evaluate had no insight into that. Now we have 16 core fabrics we'll put through the tool to further hone the assortment -- so all that information will be available to us prior to the design process. Rather than audit our choices later, this gives us a chance to start off with the right fabrics."

Other examples: Canon, Kraft, Mazda and Nike

Companies in other industries -- Canon, Kraft Foods (NYSE: KFT) and Mazda, to name a few -- have done similar work to tie life-cycle assessments back into day-to-day product design. Canon's proprietary tool helped the company reduce carbon emissions in its newer product lines by 30 percent, and reduce energy usage by up to 75 percent. Packaging designers at Kraft used its proprietary Eco-Calculator to reduce packaging for its YES salad dressing by 60 percent. Mazda first applied its LCA tool to the design of the Demio, a Japanese model, in 2010 and realized that by incorporating LCA into the design process, the total emissions associated with the car were reduced. The company is now in the process of extending LCA to all new vehicle designs.

Nike (NYSE: NKE) was an early adopter in the apparel space, developing its Environmental Apparel Design Tool to help designers understand the environmental impacts of design decisions early in the process. The tool took seven years and $6 million to build, but it now helps guide the designs of many Nike products as part of the company's Considered program, which aims to reduce toxins in Nike products and support the sourcing and use of more sustainable materials. The company aims to integrate its Considered principles and use of the Environmental Apparel Design Tool into the design of all of its products by 2020.

In the meantime, the company has made various versions of its tool available to the public, including a scoring tool that gives product designs a "needs improvement," "good," "better," or "best" rating. There is also a Footwear Design tool (like the Environmental Apparel Design Tool, but geared toward specific concerns with shoes), a Material Assessment Tool (which scores individual materials) and a Water Assessment Tool (used for scoring drying and finishing facilities).

While the Nike tool does not include end-of-life criteria, it does highlight ways to reduce eventual waste by making different decisions in early design phases. In all cases, as with Levi's tool, LCA was first used to look at existing products and company processes and measure the overall footprint of both. That new understanding fueled changes in product design, and eventually companies took LCA to the next logical step and began evaluating decisions earlier and earlier in the design process.

Levi's first used Evaluate in 2007 to gauge the overall footprints of a pair of Levi 501s and Dockers Classic Khakis -- the top selling, highest volume products of each of the company's largest brands. "We were surprised to find that the biggest impacts occurred in the cotton fields, where we source raw materials, and also at the point of consumer use," says Brianna Wolf, senior specialist within Levi's Global Environmental Sustainability team. "Those are two points of the supply chain that Levi's doesn't control."

That realization prompted the company to start working more closely with its cotton suppliers, leading to its affiliation with the Better Cotton Initiative, a collaboration between several apparel companies and cotton suppliers to improve the sustainability of the global cotton supply chain. It also prompted an assortment of consumer education initiatives, including new care tags across the brand's lines instructing consumers to wash items less often, use cold water, line dry, and donate clothing when they're done with it.

Kraft Foods similarly began with a multi-year footprinting project that helped the company determine the impacts of its products on climate change, land and water use. That led to departments throughout the company using Eco-Calculator to inform decisions about everything from raw materials to packaging, all with an eye toward reducing waste.

Tying life-cycle assessments to product design

Now these companies are looking at ways not just to address impacts, but to prevent them and design them out of their products.  Notably, they're not looking to do this in the form of niche, green products. Kraft is using LCA to evaluate packaging decisions on all products and Levi's is working to source better materials across all of its lines. Its Water<less Jeans have saved 172 million liters of water since they were introduced in December 2010. There are more than 13 million pairs of them out there, but they're not a one-off product; the Water<less process has been applied across a variety of Levi jean types.

"We want to bring sustainability to consumers in a product that doesn't look sustainable, that's not a niche product," Wolf says.

Most of these proprietary LCA tools remain proprietary, but other companies still have the option of either hiring in consultants or tapping a data management company to build out the systems necessary to build LCA into their design approach. SAP, for example, has an entire suite of products built around LCA.

Levi's tool, although currently available only within the company, just may end up being the exception: There is talk of eventually open-sourcing part or all of the Evaluate tool for use in the broader apparel industry, a move that's particularly exciting to Dillinger as a designer.

"The role of the designer has previously revolved primarily around aesthetics, but this tool allows designers to integrate sustainability with aesthetic considerations," he says. "It's a great way to empower designers -- this is a community that's passionate about sustainability but hasn't had the opportunity to build it into front end. This gives us a chance to be responsible."