It would be accurate to call us avid patrons of fashion and luxuries and beyond. We enjoy to consume and the expense to our bank accounts is something we can live with but the cost to the environment is not. In our new Ten Sustainability series, Ten talks to designers and companies who are all doing their part. And we’ve started with a heavy hitter: Michael Kobori, Vice President of Global Sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co. The iconic denim brand is leading the way in terms of recycling and putting real capital into research and start-ups looking for sustainable solutions. Here Kobori elaborates on what Levi’s are really doing to propagate real change for fashions future.
Rebecca Khoury: When it comes to being sustainable, what is Levi’s biggest challenge out there right now?
Michael Kobori: Our biggest challenge… Well, I would say that right now our biggest opportunity is to really get the closed loop system and get to a circular economy. We’ve made a lot of progress in that area I think having inherently given the durability of our product and emphasis on quality since we’ve been in existence… the rivets in the pockets, that’s how it started 150 years ago. Levi was trying to make a more durable product for his consumers. So we retain that aspect of it and for us circular means more than just taking back old garments and creating new ones. We do that but it also has that element of increasing the life of the product.
What we’ve also been doing in recent years is we built these tailor shops. Now you can actually go in and and get your Levi’s altered. We do alternations, hemming, making the leg more narrow or wider, or whatever you want – we do repair so if the seam blows out or if theres a rip we’ll repair it.
MK: Yes, we also do customisation, so we put the patches and monogramming on the jackets. That in itself is helping us to extend the life of the product. And while the customisation and personalisation is a trend now we welcome that – I welcome that – because once you personalise the garment you’re less likely to throw it away. Actually the jacket I have on is something I’ll keep and will give to my daughter. So we’re really looking at circular in these ways.
We’ve just launched about a year and a half ago our Levi’s authorised vintage. So were taking old Levi’s and refurbishing and reselling them. They’re almost one of a kind items. What we still need to crack is how do we do the take back at a mass level and then what do we do with the returned garments? As you know I’m sure, the technological challenge is that when you recycle the cotton fibre you can only get to about 15-20% of the garment because the fibre gets weaker, it’s shorter when you recycle it. But we’re working with start-ups to figure out that solution. The other challenge is with blended fabrics that have cotton and lycra how do you separate those? Again we’re working with venture capitalists and start ups to correct that and get to a more circular economy. That’s the big challenge I think for all brands in our sector right now. I think the bigger one after that is that a circular economy gets you basically to neutral. But how do we go beyond neutral and begin to think about creating a more positive impact in our key areas of water, chemicals, carbon and people? That’s the bigger challenge.
RK: The bigger challenge. Are you working with start-ups to find solutions around these key areas as well?
MK: Yes. We work with start-ups through our design innovation team. They go out and identify start-ups and I’ve been getting more involved in the sustainable finance area. So I’ve got to know some of the VC’s in this space. There are now more venture capital groups that are forming in this area of sustainability, even sustainable apparel, they’re getting that specialised. So we meet with them and connect them with the start-ups we’re working with to get them going.
The other thing we’ve been doing is something called the Collaboratory. We’ve run this for a couple of years where we bring in social entrepreneurs who are working on key issues, the first few we did focused on water, last year focused on carbon. These are folks who are out there trying to come up with solutions in the apparel space. We bring them in to Levi’s really to learn how we approach innovation, some of the big challenges we have. We pair them up with a mentor, somebody inside the company who’s working on those issues and then we send them back out, they develop a project idea and then we’ll support that project idea. So it’s kind of a mini version of an incubator of sorts.
RK: Are you working with any emerging designers? Either sharing your knowledge or collaborating in anyway?
MK: Some of these folks are in the design space. We have collaborated with Outerknown the surf wear brand. This jacket I’m wearing is the collaboration with them. This is one of the results. And this trucker jacket is 31% cotton hemp. So we blended the 69% cotton with cottonised hemp. The hand feel is really terrific. Hemp was always really rough but we’ve got a mill in Europe that we work with that turns it into something as soft as cotton. This is much more commercial, so we need to get it scaled but we’ll figure that out.
Outerknown x Levi’s Wellthread embroidered trucker jacket
RK: Do you have solid key dates for your goals?
MK: Just some key dates for you… So by 2020 our target is to hit 100% more sustainable fibre. More sustainable cotton in particular. The bulk of that is going to be through the better cotton initiative and then smaller quantities of organic and recycled. That’s one of our big targets. By 2020 as part of our commitment to the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals pledge, we should achieve zero discharge of hazardous chemicals in our supply chain.
We have a number of others that are for 2025. Our climate target that we announced last Fall calls for us to get to 90% greenhouse gas reduction in our owned and operated facilities, so all of our retail, distribution centres and offices. And 40% reduction in our supply chain which is a pretty impressive target obviously since we don’t control the supply chain. So that one is 2025. And we’re after that one.
RK: How do you push your suppliers or collaborators to try and get to a goal like that?
MK: Well we are partnering with the International Finance Corporation which is part of the World Bank – the private sector. We started a pilot with them a couple of year ago where they identify consultants to come in, we and our vendors pay for the consultants and those consultants advise our vendors on energy efficiency, what kind of equipment to install and where the opportunities are. So based on those pilots we did in six vendors we were able to reduce the energy use by about 20% and together those six vendors saved a million dollars. So it’s something that is a benefit to the vendors and we’re hitting our climate goals. So we’re going to expand that program with the IFC now. We just signed the cooperative agreement last week. We’re expanding it to all of our key vendors and they’re expanding it to not just advising on energy efficiency but also renewables. That’s pretty exciting.
RK: It’s good incentive.
MK: It’s great incentive. They’re going to help with financing and this is a program any brand can use and can work with, so we (Levi’s) and the IFC would like to expand it to the whole sector.
RK: Well done.
MK: Well we’re not done yet. We’re trying but we’re getting there. It’s promising.
RK: If you had to give one piece of advise to any consumer on how individually they can affect change, what would it be?
MK: Consider what you’re buying before you’re buying it and what that company – that brand – is doing around sustainability. Don’t just look at a label, do a little homework. There’s lots of claims out there but be a skeptical consumer about brand claims.
by Rebecca Khoury