Interface and Levi's on what the fabric of sustainability feels like in 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 first 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 second part here.
Aiste Brackley: What key drivers have shaped your sustainability strategy to date?
Erin Meezan: Several principles have guided the evolution of our sustainability strategy. Firstly, it had to be holistic; a framework that applies to the entire business — not just focused on one facet of the business. It should focus on product, manufacturing and employees. Our approach was also heavily influenced by biomimicry before we even knew biomimicry. One of the first questions we asked as we went about redesigning the strategy was, "How would nature design a business, and what would the outputs and processes look like?" Being grounded in looking to nature as a mentor always has been part of our approach.
Openness and transparency also have been very important. We published one of the first corporate sustainability reports, and we always have been open with our customers, making sure that we can back data with audits. Lastly, sustainability strategy is always evolving. In the past, I would have said it’s about doing no harm, but now our ultimate goal is to become a business focused on restorative impacts.
Michael Kobori: The company is 165 years old and still privately held by the descendants of Levi Strauss himself. Levi was deeply engaged in having a positive impact on the community, employees and the environment, before that was common. The history of the company always has been crucial to how we approach sustainability.
In more recent years, science and understanding our actual impacts have played an increasingly critical role. When we started sourcing product internationally 25 years ago, we wanted to understand the impact that we had on workers. More recently, it has been about undertaking an environmental lifecycle assessment of our products to understand the environmental impact through the entire life of the product, starting with growing of cotton through to consumer use. That fact-based and science-based approach has been one of the key tenets of our approach.
Innovating for sustainability and then sharing that innovation with others by making it open-source also has been key to us, whether it’s our Water<less finishing techniques, our Screened Chemistry Framework or our pioneering Worker Well-being initiative. Lastly, we always have aspired to create outsized impact and influence the entire system. Put another way, how do we go beyond just mitigating negative impacts and achieve regenerative, restorative systems?
Brackley: What is your company’s vision for 2030?
Meezan: We have started on this evolution already and the focus for us has been on how to deliver on the original vision for a restorative business from 20 years ago. How do we create a strategy that is not just Interface-focused but has impact within the broader supply chain and business sector as a whole? As of now, there is no clear definition of what it means to be a positive business and to have a positive impact. It is a really exciting opportunity for pioneering companies to be able to define that. At the same time, many other companies need the certainty and specific metrics to define what they’re getting into before they can sell it to their CEO. That’s why the work that Levi Strauss & Co. and other companies are doing developing metrics and principles for net-positive initiatives is so important.
When we launched our Climate Take Back mission in 2016, we were responding to growing expectations for companies. Being just responsible, or doing no harm, is no longer enough. We are hearing this from our employees as well, who want Interface to play a more active role in addressing climate change. For corporate sustainability leaders, the bar has been raised. We need to be more ambitious in solving global problems; we have to be more active in advocacy and take bigger positions. And what may get in the way for some companies is that this is a big open space with not a lot of definitions.
Kobori: Understanding how to catalyze a shift in the system is key to our thinking for 2030. We see opportunities in the four key material ESG (environment, social, governance) areas for our company and the apparel sector: water; chemistry; carbon; and people.
While these are our material issues, they are all part of the broader system and all issues are interconnected, so we can’t pick just one issue and focus on it. A great example is raw materials. Cotton is 95 percent of what we sell. How do we look at the current system of cotton agriculture and work with other companies, NGOs, governments and communities to transform the way cotton is grown around the world so that it is more sustainable for the environment — using less water and chemicals and better for the farmers, their families and communities?
These are the kinds of shifts and initiatives that we are pursuing as we look toward 2030. For instance, we are working with the WWF and the Earth Genome project on the watershed for Lahore, Pakistan. Our partners are mapping the water use, projecting water needs and creating scenarios for 2030. What will different actors need to do to ensure that it is a sustainable and verdant watershed in the future? Engaging all of the industries, agricultural and residential users and government to help create that future is key.
Brackley: What role does competitive spirit play in corporate sustainability and where are the main opportunities in this space?
Meezan: Everyone thinks their industry is the least collaborative. Some of the most exciting collaborations we are involved with are actually outside of our industry with non-conventional partners. We are part of the NextWave initiative spearheaded by Dell, which is looking at reducing ocean plastic by creating cross-industry, commercial-scale global ocean-bound plastics supply chain, processing materials collected from coastal areas for use in products and packaging.
We also co-founded the Net-Works initiative with the Zoological Society in London to collect abandoned fishing nets in the Philippines and Africa and get them to our yarn suppliers. These are two great initiatives that show how companies can collaborate across sectors, but overall we still struggle to have industry-wide collaboration. A lot of this has to do with the fact that we have philosophical differences with many competitors that have sustainability and recycling initiatives in order to stay competitive, but it is not part of their company ethos. I see this pattern in a lot of sectors. There is typically a pioneer in the category driving industry adoption.
Kobori: The apparel and footwear sector is somewhat different, especially given the history of collaboration around labor standards in our supply chains. Ever since the 1990s, we have been really driven to collaborate on social issues and that also has manifested in the environmental sphere. Apparel companies also have a lot of shared vendors, which encourages collaboration in the supply chain.
The Better Cotton Initiative has been one of the most successful collaborations, and that’s mostly because it is multi-stakeholder. It involves everyone who touches the raw material, not just brands and retailers, but mills, spinners, cotton merchants, farmers and NGOs. It has played a key role transforming the way that cotton is grown. Another reason it has been so successful is the business focus and making sure that we’re not creating a price premium for more sustainable cotton. If you are able to maintain price parity, sustainability becomes a competitive advantage. In seven years, the Better Cotton Initiative has qualified more than 15 percent of global cotton by volume and reached over 2 million farmers, which is a really big impact, and we are starting to see a shift in the system.