Interface and Levi's on courage and collaboration for 2030
Modular carpet manufacturer Interface and apparel company Levi Strauss & Co. long have been at the forefront of sustainable innovation. SustainAbility’s Aiste Brackley sat down with Erin Meezan, chief sustainability officer at Interface, and Michael Kobori, VP of sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co., to discuss what it will take to lead in 2030.
In the second installment of a two-part series, we discuss the key drivers that have shaped the companies’ sustainability strategies to date and the need for companies to aim for systemic change. Find the first part here.
Aiste Brackley: Collaboration will be key to achieving the 2030 goals and catalyzing systemic change. What other factors will determine the success of corporate long-term strategy on sustainability?
Erin Meezan: Companies are going to need to get much more engaged in advocacy. What has made collaboration in the apparel sector so successful is one of the biggest challenges for us. We have several competitors with very similar products and processes. We all own our manufacturing, but we share many suppliers. Supply chain presents real opportunities to solve some of the key challenges we face. Implementing a circular economy approach to products and materials is one of the biggest challenges we face for the next decade, and one of the key obstacles is that the system is not where we would like it to be to deliver on our sustainability goals. For us, advocacy is becoming a way to change that bigger system.
Recently the state of California updated its mandatory carpet recycling law. And while our industry association fought it, we broke with it to support the effort. We hired a lobbyist and worked with NGOs and the governor’s office successfully. The legislation passed. I think we are likely to see companies take such action more often — on climate policy, on social issues. It remains a taboo issue within many companies and had been this way for a while at Interface, too. We did not want to make anyone mad, so we were reluctant to step forward. It’s still difficult for many publicly traded companies to take such a step.
Michael Kobori: Advocacy on public policy issues is going to become more important and something that especially the leadership companies will be expected to do. We are fortunate to be private and have a CEO that is comfortable taking a stand on social issues like DACA and equality. And also taking positions that aren’t necessarily aligned with the federal government but that we know are aligned with consumers and what we believe in as a company.
Climate is another such issue. Advocating on causes that are not only important to consumers but ultimately to business and getting those policies changed — like equality and climate — that’s going to be a hallmark of companies that are successful in 2030.
I would add something else. As a company, we’ve done a number of things in these areas — but we don’t talk about it much to our consumers. In the future, we will need to. Because in the future, it will be the companies that use sustainability to differentiate themselves that are going to stand out. Engaging consumers on sustainability will drive business growth and brand equity, and at the same time, it will help drive demand for sustainable products and ultimately more sustainable systems.
Brackley: What will be the qualities of sustainability leaders in 2030? According to the GlobeScan-SustainAbility Leaders Survey 2017, integrated sustainability strategy, transparency, honesty, trust and advocacy will be very important. Do you agree?
Meezan: When thinking about leadership in 2030, I can’t get away from the word courage. I think you’re going to have to have the courage to do the internal lobbying to get your organization focused on these issues. Or the courage to take a stance on difficult causes or talk about these issues with your customers, not knowing how this discussion might land. But that’s where strength comes in numbers. It’s much easier for a chief sustainability officer to pitch a collaboration to a CEO if you are joined by NGOs and industry peers. Those collaborations will be really important to give us the courage that we need to take bold positions and explore what it means to have a positive impact when customers aren’t really asking for that yet. I think that requires courage.
Kobori: I agree with the key findings of the GSS Leaders 2017. Visionary leaders, company mission and vision that go beyond simply reducing negative impacts, open communication, transparency — all of these qualities will be required of future leaders.
One quality that is missing is the business benefit. It’s not just the CEO and heads of sustainability that will be building and communicating that vision but the leaders of every business function. Having that sustainability vision fully integrated across the entire organization will be the real hallmark of future leaders. It is also important to note the importance of partnering with others — businesses, NGOs, governments. We are going to need collaboration to achieve this restorative vision and systems change. Of course, we are all set up to compete, but while leadership companies will use innovation and sustainability as a competitive differentiator, they will also continue to drive innovative partnerships on systems change for sustainability.
Brackley: How do you see your company’s and industry’s role in achieving the SDGs?
Meezan: The SDGs absolutely cannot be achieved without the business sector. Being a 4,000-person business, influence is our biggest contribution. We have been outspoken about our sustainability commitments and initiatives and have been sharing practical models from our business. We have positive impacts on the marine environment and local communities through programs like Net-Works, and by being outspoken about it, we can share those solutions with the rest of the business community.
Kobori: The role of companies like Levi Strauss & Co. will be to drive action around those issues that are material to us. We can’t help with all SDGs, so it will be about prioritizing and making clear commitments. We can also contribute to the SDGs by leading the change within our industry through coalitions like Sustainable Apparel Coalition,The Better Cotton Initiative, and Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) group. And lastly, we can be that voice for change through our advocacy positions.
I’m looking forward to the future. We have gone through an incredible evolution of sustainable business over the decades. It evolved from being charity-focused, to corporate social responsibility and harm reduction, and now we are in the era of building a regenerative and restorative society and planet. I feel like we are at the tipping point of another fundamental shift of the role of business in society. We have all built our careers on this, and it is an incredibly exciting time to be working on sustainability issues.