Context, community and collaboration: Inside Levi Strauss’ updated water action strategy

EXCLUSIVE: In revamping the water strategy for its global supply chain, Levi Strauss hopes to further embed a science-based and community-focused approach to its sustainability work, the firm's vice president for sustainability Michael Kobori has revealed.

Context, community and collaboration: Inside Levi Strauss’ updated water action strategy

The strategy launch was timed to coincide with World Water Week

This summer, a stark warning was issued by the World Resources Institute (WRI): that a quarter of the world’s population is now living in regions of extremely high water stress, largely due to climate challenges and slow progress on improvements in water infrastructure, national policies and corporate ambition.

The statistic was brought closer to home for businesses, policymakers and individuals in developed nations by climate strikes across the globe, and, here in the UK specifically, warnings from the Environment Agency that England could run dry of water within 25 years.

Many industries are doubtless already feeling this pressure, from the agri-food and beverage sector, to hospitality, leisure and heavy industry. But a pressure-point which may not be so obvious to the general public is fashion – a sector which accounts for around 5% of global water use. To bring that figure into context, the amount of water needed to produce one pair of blue jeans 500 to 1,800 gallons.

With September marking the start of the fashion events season and the end of what has been a record hot summer in many parts of Europe, the release of Levi Strauss’ new global water action strategy was, therefore, timely. The headline ambition of the framework is to halve cumulative water use for manufacturing in water-stressed areas by 2025, along with a promise to help suppliers accounting for 80% of its total product volume to implement their own time-bound water targets by the same deadline.

Speaking exclusively to edie, Kobori explained that the implementation of these targets marks a shift away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach to water management in light of new climate science.

“This new approach is really context-based and location-specific because water is not like carbon; if carbon is emitted into the atmosphere, it affects everyone, everywhere, but water is far more place-specific,” he said.

The three main water stress hotspots in Levi’s supply chain, Kobori added, are Northern India and Pakistan, Mexico and Northern China. In these regions, Levi will require not only vendors, but fabric mills further down the supply chain as well, to collaborate with them in order to ensure they are aligning their water use with climate science.

A problem shared…

In order to engage suppliers with this process, which will require many of them to change large proportions of their water-related practices, Levi’s is working with The World Bank. Through its Partnership for Cleaner Textiles (PaCT), the development finance agency supports dialogue between textile buyers, factories, communities, government and civil society, in a bid to ensure the sustainability ambitions and actions of these actors are aligned. 

Kobori admitted that getting suppliers on board without them feeling like criticism has been placed on them from the top down has become easier in recent years, with water savings and social sustainability initiatives increasingly delivering both short-term financial benefits and long-term trust among the general public and the investment community.

Specifically, he explained that several of the denim finishing techniques used across the Levi’s supply chain to minimise water use – dubbed Water

Building on this work, Kobori believes it is important that this collaborative approach to leadership becomes the norm, rather than the exception, given the context-specific nature of water stewardship.

“We know that suppliers, even if they take positive action, may still be hurting if other businesses and industries in the region are increasing their water use,” he said. “They need to be looking beyond the four walls of their factories, which is where we can support them by reaching out to local organisations and the policymakers who have jurisdiction over the water in that region.”

The early signs of this shift to a “beyond-the-fence-line” approach for Levi’s can be seen in the Ravi River basin outside Lahore, Pakistan, where Levi’s is working with WWF and Arizona State University’s Earth Genome Project to map and diagnose sources of water stress for both surface water and groundwater.

Kobori hopes this exercise will help drive actions from both the policy and private-sector sides of the conversation, to ensure that actors of all types and sizes do not act outside of the context-specific water resource boundaries in the region.

Joining the dots

The shift to a context-based water stewardship approach has been slowly but surely happening in a number of water-intense sectors over the past year, as science in this field improves. In the beverage space, for example, such an approach is used by like likes of Diageo, the Coca-Cola Company and Heineken.  

But fashion is arguably more prone to public scrutiny in light of campaigns such as Extinction Rebellion’s fashion “boycott” XR52, Fashion Revolution’s “Who Made My Clothes” and media exposés such as the BBC’s Stacey Dooley Investigates Fast Fashion.

With this in mind, Levi’s updated water strategy states that Water

Elaborating on this point, Kobori explained that the strategy will see Levi begin telling consumers that their jeans are Water

“We are certainly seeing an uptake in interest in sustainability – not just with individual consumers, but with our business customers,” he said.

“What we see here in Europe is a lot of discussion around climate issues, given the level of activism. I think the conversation and awareness around water is coming along and consumers certainly know that they have an impact, because we hear them asking about how often they should wash their jeans – but the knowledge around other stages of the lifecycle is, perhaps, not fully there.”

In order to help build this knowledge, Levi’s lists information regarding the water impact of each stage of the denim life-cycle on its website, alongside information around its resource efficiency and climate frameworks.

But, for Kobori, on-product labelling will “give greater visibility” to the importance of sustainable water management for fashion at a time when the public are demanding that brands are more vocal about social and environmental issues. Indeed, such labelling is already being used to that end by fashion giants such as Selfridges and Burberry.

“If we can continue to innovate in the face of any of these challenges – be it water stress and climate change or gender issues – we can help to set an example and open-source best practice in a way that case raise standards across the whole industry,” Kobori concluded.

Sarah George

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