Among more than 600 global brands that the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE) evaluated for their supply chains, the denim brand Levi’s won the top spot in the 2021 Green Supply Chain CITI Evaluation. The IPE, a nonprofit environmental research organization based in Beijing, China, first began its evaluation in 2014. Focused specifically on supply chains in China, the Green Supply Chain CITI Evaluation assesses how successfully brands implement sustainable practices in their supply chains. The IPE considers several factors to determine brands’ environmental management such as responsiveness and transparency, compliance and corrective actions, and green supply chain practices, among others. Here’s where Levi’s performed the best and how their manufacturing practices can help improve your fashion brand’s environmental management, no matter where you base your label’s manufacturing:
Reason #1: Fashion Supply Chain Responsiveness and Transparency
A fashion brand with strong sustainability practices will collaborate with their manufacturing partners to remedy environmental violations. Environmental remediation can be assessed through two factors:
What information a fashion brand offers to the public about its supply chain
How accessible the brand makes its supply chain information to consumers
Levi’s scored the highest amount possible in responsiveness and transparency because of their concerted efforts in working with their fashion manufacturers to mitigate environmental violations. For example, in an effort to combat its suppliers’ carbon emissions, Levi’s began working with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) to implement low-carbon investment plans to help suppliers access lower-cost financing that would allow them to employ more sustainable manufacturing practices. The initiative offers working capital, such as trade financing, at lower rates to suppliers adhering to environmental standards. Additionally, the global denim brand set aggressive targets in 2018 for reducing carbon emissions. Indeed, Levi’s announced that it would aim to use 100 percent renewable electricity, both in its stores and manufacturing facilities, by 2025. The denim brand also launched their global IFC Partnership for Cleaner Textile (PaCT), which helps suppliers identify and implement actions to improve water and energy efficiency and increase renewable energy usage. These steps towards more sustainable apparel manufacturing practices not only help reduce the use of natural resources, but they also help cut operational costs through improved production practices. Simple and low-cost measures could limit water use by up to 20 percent in manufacturing facilities and lead to savings in future infrastructure and operational expenditure.
Levi’s ambitious goals to promote more sustainable production practices highlight the importance of a fashion brand’s manufacturing partnerships. Since Levi’s must mass produce its product because of its mere immensity, smaller brands can compete with large brands’ environmental initiatives. In fact, smaller brands offer consumers much more sustainable manufacturing practices because their smaller-scale production allows them to work in smaller batches, which places less strain on the environment. Also, working in smaller batches means manufacturers can spend more time focusing on creating high-quality products. Furthermore, since smaller brands tend to work in smaller batches, their product has a higher rate of consistently shipping on time, which leads to a more stable supply chain and, ultimately, customer satisfaction. Consumers will know their orders will arrive on time, and they will consequently lend their trust and loyalty to the fashion brand.
Reason #2: Extended Green Supply Chain Practices
When determining a fashion brand’s environmental management strategies, the IPE also considers how green supply chain practices are implemented. A strong determinant of effective green supply chain practices assesses a brand’s chemical supplier—namely, that the brand is working with suppliers to reduce water wasted and the chemicals used to make its products. Levi’s was specifically recognized for its recent supply innovations to limit the brand’s water usage and chemicals needed to create its jeans. These recent innovations include:
Software and lasers – These technologies help further automate the brand’s production process, which significantly reduces the chemicals needed to create faded and worn finishes consumers want. Levi’s chief supply chain officer describes these innovations, stating, “It’s a total transformation of our operating model, an end-to-end digital environment that has huge implications for manufacturing, inventory management, sustainability, and ultimately how we sell.”
Testing and research – Levi’s partnered with the international research company Hohenstein, which specializes in textile research, to ensure the use of safer chemicals in its production process. The research collaboration aims to accomplish this by implementing more rigorous chemical testing, verification processes, and transparency initiatives.
Innovative materials – Perhaps the most fascinating innovation Levi’s recently announced in its green supply chain efforts is the denim brand’s strategy to “cottonize” hemp. Through integrating hemp in its supply chain, the denim brand aims to reduce its water usage since it’s a less water-intensive crop. Hemp also requires fewer chemicals and less land use to grow.
Reason #3: Promote Public Green Choice in the Apparel Market
One of the most important categories under the IPE’s Green Supply Chain CITI Evaluation considers how brands promote public green choice in the apparel market. According to the IPE’s evaluation guidelines, a brand that successfully promotes public green choice will:
Guide the public into paying attention to the environmental performance of supply chains.
Direct the public to participate in the sorting and recycling of plastics and other waste.
A notable step that Levi’s has taken towards promoting public green choice includes its “Buy Better, Wear Longer” campaign. This campaign encourages consumers to be more intentional when making purchases and urges customers to be more intentional about what they purchase. Additionally, the “Buy Better, Wear Longer” campaign emphasizes the brand’s commitment towards making its operations more sustainable. The denim brand even recruited Gen-Z stars like Jaden Smith, Emma Chamberlain, and Xiye Bastida, to partner with them in their campaign. According to Levi’s Brand President, Jennifer Sey, the brand is “using this campaign to encourage consumers to be more intentional about their apparel choices: to wear each item longer, for example, to buy SecondHand, or to use [Levi’s] in-store Tailor Shops to extend the life of their garments.” The in-store Tailor Shops are certainly another successful innovation because they not only encourage consumers to make more sustainable purchasing decisions, but they also allow consumers (who also prioritize individuality) to customize what they purchase. Furthermore, Levi’s SecondHand stores sell vintage Levi’s from previous collections and encourage consumers to participate in “a more sustainable future.”
What Does Levi’s Sustainability Successes Mean for Smaller Fashion Brands?
The sustainability innovations contributing to Levi’s improved environmental management speak to the importance of green supply chains in the fashion industry. Just like Levi’s, fashion brands both big and small are embracing strides towards a circular economy to limit resources used in production. However, large companies are attempting to rectify decades-long environmental mismanagement in their supply chains. And despite large brands’ apparent commitment to true, sustainable change, implementation will prove a tremendous challenge. For example, Levi’s apparently joined the IPS’s online transparency tool, the Green Supply Chain Map, which links brands to their suppliers’ environmental performance in China. However, upon interacting with the online tool, no information regarding suppliers’ environmental performance actually appears to users. This demonstrates the difficulty Levi’s and other large brands face regarding sustainable manufacturing practices – implementing these greener changes are proving more difficult because of the transformations required on such a large scale. Additionally, when Levi’s and other large brands attempt to improve their environmental management but miss the mark, they risk of compromising the trust they’ve built with consumers and undermining all the other green initiatives they implemented.
This gives smaller fashion brands a distinct advantage. They can stand out from the fickleness of larger brands using the following strategies:
Focus on manufacturing partners who prioritize craftsmanship. – Despite large brands’ efforts to reduce their water and chemical consumption by using technological innovations, it’s at the expense of craftsmanship. Big brands’ production machines can neither fully capture nor imitate the craftsmanship that emerges from generations of manufacturing and producing in smaller batches.
Partner with family-owned factories. – Smaller brands that work with family-owned manufacturers make a more compelling sustainability case because they focus on humanizing the people behind their designs. By publicly partnering with family-owned factories, smaller brands show their consumers that they care about their workers and build more loyalty and trust with them.
All these fashion brands making strides towards more conscientious supply chains shows a positive outcome: brands are becoming more committed to improving their environmental management strategies. Whether brands like it or not, they are beholden to consumers’ demands for sustainability in the fashion industry. It is important to continue evaluating other brands’ responses to these “greener” demands, as they may offer new ways to improve operations and build consumers’ loyalty and trust.
Frida Plata studied the Humanities at the University of Chicago (MA, 2020). She is currently a Content Marketing Intern at MakersValley. An avid museum-goer, Frida enjoys learning about art and fashion from all over the world.