The Dirt On Denim: How Levi's Is Making The Industry & Your Jeans More Sustainable
Tackling the environmentally damaging effects of denim production, Levi’s vice president of sustainability, Michael Kobori, speaks to Sarah Downs about making denim for the future
Michael Kobori’s denim jacket really gives him away. It’s covered in idiosyncratic embroidery, patches like a patriotic peace sign, a badge that reads Give Earth a Chance, and, looking closely, there’s a tiny red flag sewn onto it.
He had it customised at Levi’s Strauss and Co’s new in-store tailor service where you can pay to have denim adorned and get repairs so jeans last longer.
“It’s about personalising the garment so it becomes something you want to keep for the rest of your life. Consumers are becoming more interested in this idea of having fewer items with real lasting value,” says Michael, who is vice-president of sustainability at Levi’s.
The retail experience, in flagship stores globally, is one way the 165-year-old company hopes to attract today’s more conscious shopper, and steer them away from buying online. With Gen Z on track to overtake millennials and make up one-third of the world’s population by next year, Michael thinks it’s the brands built on notions of integrity that will be increasingly valued by a younger client base.
“They’re so different. Gen Z is more interested in brands that take a stand on the important issues of the day. They’re activists and we want to be able to have that connection.”
Levi’s, which invented blue jeans in 1873, is stitched into American identity.
Originally the uniform of miners and cowboys in the American Wild West, the brand went on to be worn by movie stars like Marlon Brando, and rock stars from Jim Morrison to The Ramones. Teens followed their idols. Levi’s introduced women’s jeans in 1934 — a radical idea when skirts were the norm.
The company is well-known for advocating social causes. It has supported the LGBTQ community for over three decades and spoke out about the presidency of Donald Trump by donating US$1 million towards LGBTQ rights, ethnic minorities, and immigrants. In 2018, CEO Chip Bergh published an op-ed in Fortune magazine backing gun control. He pledged $1 million to support organisations working to end gun violence.
But how sustainable is Levi’s?
Speaking from Sydney, where he appeared at creative festival Semi-Permanent, Michael says Levi’s is very aware of the environmental impact of making denim.
After all, the fashion industry is arguably the second most polluting industry (reportedly topped only by oil) and one of the main culprits in contributing to climate change. In particular, denim is known for creating an excessive amount of waste with, on average, 10,000 litres of water required to make a single pair of jeans.
Michael started out in human rights and joined Levi’s in 1995, leading its sustainability initiatives since 2001. Previously, he was vice-president and director of human rights programmes at Business for Social Responsibility in San Francisco.
Before that, he spent nearly 10 years at The Asia Foundation, a non-profit organisation which works to improve lives across Asia. He had stints in Bangladesh, Thailand and San Francisco. Michael now lectures in sustainability at the University of California and lives in Berkeley with his wife and two daughters.
“I really didn’t pursue sustainability until I got to Levi’s. I started in workers’ labour and establishing our code of conduct. Then a few years later added the environmental side. In 2007, we completed a life-cycle assessment, which analyses the environmental impact of a single pair of jeans from raw material to consumer use and disposal. That gave us the scientific facts to find our biggest areas of impact to focus on,” he says.
Michael’s pioneering efforts include waterless production techniques that cut up to 96 per cent of the water from the finishing process.
A world-class Worker Wellbeing programme ensures labour rights and environmental standards are being met by the company’s supplier facilities, which has resulted in reduced absenteeism and higher productivity.
The company’s latest and most ambitious goal is to cut carbon emissions across its supply chain by 40 per cent by 2025. The $2.3 million project with the International Finance Corporation, a World Bank Group organisation, applies to a sprawling set of Levi’s third-party factories and fabric mills across 10 countries. Its owned-and-operated facilities are tasked with a reduction of 90 per cent in carbon emissions and a 100 per cent renewable energy rate.
Levi’s is the first apparel company in the US to set targets under the Science-Based Targets Initiative, which helps limit global warming to well-below 2C. A flurry of other sustainability targets across the fashion industry has followed.
Last month, Puma announced plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 35 per cent by 2030, while Nike and Burberry also unveiled plans to curb their emissions.
“At this point, we believe this [Levi’s target] is the most aggressive target in the industry, in terms of both the magnitude and time frame,” Michael says. “We hope to show the industry what is possible. In some ways, these are calls for action to support the rest of the industry and make fashion and apparel more sustainable.”
He wants more apparel companies to join industry-wide initiates such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) and the Better Cotton Initiate (BCI). The BCI grows cotton with fewer pesticides, less water, and better labour standards and profits for farmers. Levi’s will source 95 per cent sustainable cotton by 2025, just behind Gap and Ralph Lauren’s 100 per cent commitment in the same timeframe.
“BCI is actually changing the system of cotton agriculture which is super exciting. We need to discuss how we are making progress together and encourage more companies towards these initiatives,” he says.
In a search of cotton alternatives, Levi’s Wellthread x Outerknown collection is piloting a pair of jeans and jacket made from a 31 per cent “cottonised” hemp blend.
Hemp production uses roughly half the water and chemicals cotton does and the fibre is processed to be softer to touch. It’s likely that the blend will be incorporated into all products in the future.
According to Michael, sustainability is an opportunity for innovation in business rather than a restriction. Some of its innovations have led to profits. For example, the Eureka innovation Lab uses lasers instead of chemicals to distress jeans, which reduces environmental damage, production costs and slashes finishing time and speed to market.
“The benefits of innovation from sustainability are manifold,” he says “It’s a constraint. It makes us work harder to find ways to solve production problems but in that quest, innovation occurs.” Levi’s also has the policy to open source the full range of its techniques, in an effort to encourage others towards being more sustainable.
“We want to share all of our breakthrough innovations and get others to come on board. Our aspirations continue to set the bar for ourselves and hopefully inspire the rest of the industry to change the unsustainable systems that still exist,” says Michael.
When asked about his everyday efforts (aside from his eco-double denim) he says: “I’m walking more and using more public transport. I’m also changing my diet. My wife is a pescetarian and she’s making me eat a lot less red meat. Plant-based alternatives are amazing; you really can’t tell the difference.”