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Levi's Wellthread stitches design together with worker well-being

Levi Strauss & Company’s new Eureka innovation lab in San Francisco on Wednesday unveiled Dockers Wellthread, a process that pushes the envelope on sustainable design. It’s meant to connect the dots between smart design, environmental practices and the well-being of the apparel workers who make the garments.

From materials sourcing to garment manufacturing to end-of-life, Levi’s set out to create a replicable process for designing durable apparel that is restorative to the environment and the community where it is made. The result is a new line of men’s khakis, jackets and T-shirts designed not only to be soft to the touch, but to leave a softer environmental and social footprint as well.

“How you make a garment is just as important as the garment itself,” said Michael Kobori, vice president of social and environmental sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co., in a statement. The launch was tied to an event at the BSR Conference.

(Full disclosure: My firm, Green Impact, will work with Levi's on its sustainability communications later this month.)

Smarter design

While there is a lot of talk these days about how sustainability can drive innovation, the innovation lab has taken this concept to heart and allowed Paul Dillinger, senior director of design at Dockers Brand, permission to set out to design the most sustainable piece of apparel in the industry, within a sustainable business model. The initial vision for the Wellthread process (PDF) and pilot collection took shape as part of the Aspen Institute’s First Movers Fellowship.

Embedding the creative constraints of sustainability into the design process from the start unlocked innovation and business value in the form of a more efficient and flexible production process.

“The design mind is still delighted by these creative challenges that are put to it," Dillinger said. "But if we put these guardrails on the activity, it actually has tremendous unlock in terms of business potential."

At the front end of the design process, he took into account considerations of social value, as well as looking at other leverage points for reducing environmental impact. Guided by one of Levi’s core values to build sustainability into everything it does, combined with his willingness to ask ridiculous questions and tenacity to push the envelope on the manufacturing process, Dillinger said he birthed a new process that he believes will accelerate change.

“We wanted a tailored blazer made in a factory that invested in worker programs,” reads the hangtag on the new Dockers Wellthread blazer. “But the machinery at the factory just made jean jackets not tailored blazers. So our designers and factories engineers utilized unprecedented collaboration and innovative techniques to create this blazer for you.”

Environmental footprint

The Dockers design team and suppliers worked together to find ways to reduce water and energy use compared to conventional methods. This new process utilizes specialized garment-dyeing to reduce both water and energy consumption with cold-water pigment dyes for tops and salt-free reactive dyes for pants and jackets. In addition, the apparel is dyed in the factory, not in the mill – which allows for greater inventory agility because the garments are dyed to order.

The designers also considered responsible use and re-use with the end of the garment’s life in mind. Though recycling facilities are not widely available, the company anticipates that one day they will be. Extremely long staples of cotton can be more easily recycled, so the brand developed a unique, long-staple yarn for its premium Wellthread twill. In addition, every garment in the collection uses 100 percent cotton, including in the thread and pocketing. The sundries include compressed cotton or metal that can be easily extracted by magnets. Using a drying cycle is tough on fabric and hard on the environment, so the design team also added care instructions to wash in cold, and a locker loop on the khakis to encourage line drying.

Worker well-being

The Dockers Wellthread khakis are made exclusively at one of the Improving Workers’ Well-Being pilot sites. Improving Workers’ Well-Being is a program for improving the finances and well-being of workers in Levi’s supply chain in five core areas: economic empowerment; good health and family well-being; equality and acceptance; educational and professional development; and access to a safe and healthy environment. This is a small, yet important step in sending a direct message to suppliers—programs that improve the lives of factory workers are good business.

Andrea Moffat, VP of corporate programs for Ceres, wrote in a GreenBiz story in March that the pilot program was translating into action. One Bangladesh-based supplier “has launched several initiatives providing services such as food to expectant mothers, free medical care, free transportation to and from work, and awards for attendance and production, all of which are designed to improve the lives of their employees,” she wrote.

Small to big

Levi’s is taking the “go small to go big” approach, with the intention of proving the concept before deploying it on a grander scale, "to explore the results in terms of social and business value," the business-case study of Wellthread explains. "Wellthread will make its debut in the spring, and the company is exploring how future Dockers and Levi’s collections can capitalize on the process."

Initially, the line will be sold online and in stores in Europe, not to U.S. consumers.

Other clothing makers are stepping up to improve worker conditions and environmental efforts, especially in the wake of fatal garment factory tragedies in Bangladesh over the past year. And Patagonia, known for its "responsible economy" campaign, last week announced plans to sell Fair Trade-certified clothing.

Images from Levi Strauss & Co. 

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