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A New Way of Thinking About Companies, Society and Sustainability

[Editor's Note: John Anderson, president and CEO of Levi Strauss & Co., provided the following excerpt of a speech he recently delivered at the Haas School of Business of the University of California at Berkeley.]

To me, sustainability has become the touchstone of the entire discussion about the relationship between business and the society it serves.

It is a global issue, with an impact in every country, and every community.

At Levi Strauss & Co., thinking about sustainability was just a natural extension of the way we saw ourselves and our responsibility. By the later part of the last century, we had become one of the world's most famous global brands. We had factories around the world. Hundreds of stores. We shipped and trucked our clothes hundreds of thousands of miles. We made an impact on the environment that we were very much aware of.

{related_content}And we tried to do something about it. For more than two decades, Levi's has been a leader on environmental issues. Two decades ago we established our own global sourcing guidelines that stated, among other things, that we would only do business with partners who share our commitment to the environment and conduct their business in line with our philosophy.

And we kept pushing, with a restricted substance list, global effluent guidelines, and ambitious recycling and reuse programs. The long-term goal remains to be a zero-impact company. We want to build sustainability into everything we do so that our profitable growth helps restore the environment.

So we decided to take another step. We wanted to build a rigorous and credible assessment of our own impact on sustainability. Something that was science-based and led by a independent third-party. We wanted to understand not just the programs we had started, but the real impact of our products in their entire lifecycle.

We started with the basics. One pair of Levi's 501 Jeans. One pair of Dockers Original Khakis.

Our study found that a single pair of 501s, from growing the cotton to consumer care and disposal really does have an impact. A significant one. The lifecycle study of one pair of 501s generates 32.3 kilograms of carbon (78 miles of driving), 3480 liters of water (53 showers) and 400 megajoules of energy (running a plasma tv for 318 hours).

But the real lesson of the lifecycle study is that some of the biggest sustainability impacts have nothing to do with processing denim, sewing jeans or shipping clothes.

What we learned -- to our surprise -- was that some of the biggest environmental impacts we make fall outside our supply chain control: Namely, growing cotton (49 percent of water in the lifecycle) and consumers washing and drying our clothes (58 percent of the climate impact).

I guess there are two ways to react to the this news. One is to say: "Phew. We are not to blame. It's someone else's problem." But as you might guess, Levi Strauss & Co. has never really taken a narrow view of our business or responsibilities.

We realized that if we were going to talk about sustainability -- and talk about it seriously -- we needed to stretch well beyond our immediate business. We need to think about how we might harness the power of our brands to address issues as big as cotton and the washing machine.

We had to figure out how we could influence a fragmented global agricultural business, on the one end of the pipeline, and change the behavior of millions of Levi's customers at the other end.

Over 95 percent of all our products use cotton. In terms of impact, more than 40 million farmers and 290 million farm workers depend on cotton for their livelihood. Cotton uses a lot of pesticides and drinks up a lot of water.

So we have to ask: How can we impact cotton growing practices at the farm level?

To that end, we've joined forces with other brands and retailers such as Marks & Spencer, Adidas, and Ikea in an organization called the Better Cotton Initiative. You know about organic cotton, which addresses the use of chemicals in cotton agriculture. Better Cotton reduces chemical use and goes beyond that to try and address other environmental impacts, such as water use and soil health. It also includes labor standards and tries to improve financial profitability for farmers. So, it incorporates the three key aspects of sustainability -- environmental, social and economic sustainability.

Growing cotton is one end of the problem. How consumers use our products is the other.

Some of it is pretty basic: Washing in cold water instead of warm, switching from a top-loaded to front-loaded washing machine and line-drying all can make a big difference to climate impact. And if we could encourage customers to wash their jeans less frequently, that would reduce the climate, energy and water impact all at once.

Everything I have learned about our customers tells me that this is a topic they really do want to be engaged in. They want to know more about the environmental impact of their fashion choices. They think it is the right thing for us to stimulate a dialogue with them about what happens to our products after they've been purchased.

We recently launched an exciting new partnership with Goodwill -- A Care Tag for Our Planet -- to spread the word with consumers that caring for their clothes can help care for the planet.

By changing our care tags, we were the first major apparel company to change our garment care labels to urge consumers to take action by "washing in cold water," "line drying" and "donating unwanted clothing. We're hoping this helps put a dent in the 68 billion pounds of clothing a year that end up in landfills in the US.

What have we learned in all this? To begin with, in the apparel industry, you realize what a paradoxical life you must lead. On the one hand, you have to pay attention to changing tastes and fashion. On the other hand, you have to keep your eye on enduring values if you are going to be true to yourself.

That's the test that sustainability puts to us. It's what makes the challenge so interesting.

When we do this right, a company is not just being a good corporate citizen. It is aspiring to change the world for the better. Levi's became famous because, as our motto said, we wanted to "change the way people dress around the world."

I don't see why a business, looking far beyond its own boundaries, can't aspire to change the way people around the world think. We want to be part of that transformation. It is one of the most energizing activities we can do.

John Anderson is the president and chief executive officer of
Levi Strauss & Co.

Office Building in Washington D.C. — Image by sxc user

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