Levi Strauss & Co.

For the global leader in jeanswear that is Levi Strauss & Co., addressing its impact on the natural world starts with a deep dive into its supply chain.  

The company is working with its suppliers to support biodiversity and healthy ecosystems by placing raw materials sourcing, production and chemical management practices and effective waste management among its key priorities.  

With its full biodiversity strategy currently in development, Levi Strauss & Co. has been focusing its efforts on strategic materials including cotton and manmade cellulosic fibers (MMCs). It is increasing its use of organic and in-conversion cotton, and sources 100% of wood-based fibers from Canopy’s highest rated suppliers. 

Textile Exchange spoke to Kathleen Lynch, Manager of Sustainability – Materials and Circular Economy, about the importance of starting with metrics to quantify and measure impact, and why now is the time to move away from an approach based on mitigating that impact towards one that builds symbiotic relationships with the systems that sustain us. 

Textile Exchange: How did Levi Strauss & Co. start to address its impact on the natural world, and build out a biodiversity strategy?  

 Kathleen: At Levi Strauss & Co., we started by evaluating our impacts on the different levels of biodiversity – genetic, species and ecosystem diversity – from seed through to landfill degradation. Through this lens, we have identified our three most significant areas of impact to be cotton cultivation, MMCs and fabric dyeing and finishing.  

As a result, our biodiversity work focuses on sustainable materials and supply chain processes, with particular attention to more sustainable cotton cultivation and management. This began with our participation in the Better Cotton Initiative and its mission to scale sustainable agricultural practices. It continued as we incorporated organic cotton into our products and partnered with the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol®, and we will continue to increase our use of organic and in-conversion cotton with the intent to restore soil health, promote cleaner waterways and support farmer livelihoods.  

Textile Exchange: What sourcing restrictions have you put in place, and how has this been received by your suppliers? 

 Kathleen: In 2014, we committed to preventing fiber sourcing from Ancient and Endangered Forests by 2020. Today, 100% of wood-based fibers in products developed by Levi Strauss & Co., are sourced from Canopy Green Shirt rated suppliers that have earned a minimum of 25 buttons in Canopy’s 2020 Hot Button Ranking. These are among Canopy’s highest designations for supplier efforts to protect Ancient and Endangered Forests and provide traceability with more sustainable, next-generation inputs from recycled and regenerative sources.  

When we made this commitment, MMCs were a tiny fraction of our fiber portfolio with an outsized impact. Making a 100% commitment that dramatically narrows sourcing options can be tough for companies in today’s market conditions. But it is also extremely effective for enacting systemic change. 

We set a specific, time-bound target with quantifiable impacts and relentlessly worked towards it for six years. Our development teams and suppliers were able to deliver on this goal across every category, price point, and region because we were consistent and offered feasible alternatives to conventional MMCs. This is the beauty of a 100% target: by removing exemptions from the menu, you redirect focus on execution. 

Textile Exchange: What do you think are the biggest challenges for a brand in creating positive outcomes for biodiversity, and from your experience, what learnings can you share in overcoming them? 

Kathleen: One of the biggest challenges is the combination of both the very specific but also the existential nature of addressing biodiversity issues. We are essentially asking two questions: how does our business impact life on earth, and how is our business dependent on life on earth? 

Brands are typically focused on building products for one species, so addressing our impact on 8.7 million species instead requires different thinking. We know that negative biodiversity impacts are not relegated to one part of a business, so the challenge lies in not letting the enormity of the issues paralyze the action.  

Start with metrics to identify and measure impact. This materiality framework should determine all subsequent action. Next, set up specific, time-bound parameters to focus your actions. Accept that you cannot act on every opportunity at once. This is especially crucial with biodiversity strategy because it requires systemic and localized action to achieve significant results. Finally, get comfortable with the nuance. Ecosystems are dynamic, multi-dimensional strata, so monitoring and communicating progress on this work will reflect this complexity. 

Textile Exchange: How much are public commitments helping you to set, monitor and achieve your biodiversity goals, and which external parties, resources or tools have been the most helpful to you, outside of your network of suppliers? 

Kathleen: Participating in Textile Exchange’s Biodiversity Benchmark helped us critically evaluate our biodiversity strategy through a trusted external lens. 

As biodiversity impact quantification is complex and hyper-localized, external evaluation is essential to create a focused strategy. As we eagerly await forthcoming Science Based Targets for Nature and Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures publication, the Biodiversity Benchmark provides crucial industry-specific assessment and benchmarking to contextualize our strategy against our peers. 

Textile Exchange: What demand have you seen from your consumers regarding biodiversity? Are they already starting to become part of the conversation? 

Kathleen: One way that people understand climate change is through the lens of its impacts on species and ecosystems. So, when we dig into the criticisms of the fashion industry, biodiversity issues are front and center.  

Engaging with consumers on biodiversity issues or issues tied to overproduction and overconsumption is daunting because these conversations are nuanced and because the industry’s track record is less than stellar. But in recent years we’ve been seeing a real evolution of what consumers want and expect from companies right now, along with strong indications that they want to be part of both the conversation and the solutions. That gives companies a huge opportunity to center this work both within their operations and in honest discussions with consumers. 

Textile Exchange: What other opportunities do you think there are in the sector? Are you seeing any trends emerge? 

Kathleen: Textile Exchange’s inaugural Biodiversity Insights Report really highlights how the discussion around biodiversity has progressed. What was once a fringe conversation now has a prominent place on the sustainability agenda for many companies, which is heartening, if overdue. 

When awareness around biodiversity issues started rising, the conversation overwhelmingly focused on impact mitigation. Before the global pandemic, for example, it was very rare to hear businesses publicly acknowledge their reliance on biodiversity health for business continuity.  

Now, it is exciting to see biodiversity and ecosystem health being prioritized by financial institutions and investors because it is indicative of just how quickly attitudes and expectations have evolved. As an industry, we are just scratching the surface of our individual and collective capacity to restore and regenerate ecosystems. This is a watershed opportunity to rebuild symbiotic relationships with the systems that sustain us.