Levi Strauss takes fresh steps to eliminate gender-based violence, water misuse, in supply chains

Fashion giant Levi Strauss Co. has launched two new supply chain initiatives - one focused on protecting female supply chain workers, and the other centred around water stewardship - after an investigation uncovered systemic gender-based harassment at supplier facilities.

Levi Strauss takes fresh steps to eliminate gender-based violence, water misuse, in supply chains

Abuses uncovered by the WRC go against both Levi's workplace code of conduct and worker rights laws in South Africa. Image: Levi Strauss

Carried out by non-profit the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), the two-year investigation concluded that managers and supervisors at denim suppliers working with Levi’s, as well as brands such as Wrangler and Lee, were regularly coercing female garment workers into sexual situations.

During interviews of more than 140 women working for supplier Nien Hsing, based in Lesotho, South Africa, interviewees regularly said they had been promised promotions or better contracts in exchange for sexual acts. Moreover, it was found that Nien Hsing was suppressing workers’ rights to unionize and, therefore, collectively speak out about this issue.

Speaking to The Guardian after the WRC’s findings were published, a spokesman for Levi’s said the brand had been sourcing through Nien Hsing for 10 years. He added that, upon receiving the findings of the investigation, the company demanded that Nien Hsing make changes to its staff and management procedure, lest it lose its contracts.

Now, in the wake of the investigation, Levi’s has teamed up with fellow fashion brands Kontoor and The Children’s Place to launch a pilot programme aimed at protecting more than 10,000 female garment workers in Lesotho from human rights abuses.

Under the programme, which is also being supported by the WRC, Solidarity Centre and Workers United, an independent “watchdog” with the power to investigate claims of sexual and power harassment will be created. This body will have the right to publicly expose abusive managers and compel factories to discipline or fire offenders.

The programme will run for two years and additionally involve an education campaign, to be delivered to staff of all seniority levels, as well as management training. It is being funded by the three founding fashion brands, with support from the US Agency for International Development.

“[We have] a longstanding commitment to creating safe, productive workplaces for workers across our supply chain. As the first multinational apparel company to establish a comprehensive workplace code of conduct for our manufacturing suppliers, it is fundamental to our work,” Levi’s vice president of sustainability Michael Kobori said.

“Whenever we learn of issues that negatively impact workers, it is incumbent on us to respond quickly and thoughtfully.

“Addressing sexual harassment and abuse requires coordination and commitment; there is no ‘one size fits all’ remedy. Unlike many risks that we audit against, reports of sexual harassment and coercion are more difficult to elicit from workers due to their fear of retaliation and other factors. We are therefore currently engaging with experts in order to identify best practices for identifying gender-based violence and harassment and improving our monitoring processes.”

Responding to the news, Nien Hsing’s chairman Richard Chen said: “We strive to ensure a safe and secure workplace for all workers in our factories and are therefore fully committed to implementing this agreement immediately, comprehensively, and with measurable success.” 

Water action strategy

The move from Levi’s comes in the same week that the firm announced a new pledge of halving water use for manufacturing in water-stressed areas by 2025.

This commitment forms part of the company’s new water action strategy, which covers its entire supply chain. Unlike previous iterations of the framework, the new strategy is context-based – prioritising regions affected by water scarcity, poor water infrastructure and low levels of hygiene education.

In order to develop the framework further, Levi’s will work directly with key suppliers, covering 80% of its products by volume, to set specific and time-bound numerical targets. All of these targets will require suppliers to meet the company’s Water

Away from factories, the strategy also covers raw materials. Given that the production of non-organic cotton usually requires 10,000 litres per kilogram, Levi’s will identify where alternatives such as hemp or recycled fibres can be used, and work with the Better Cotton Initiative to minimise the water impact of remaining cotton stocks.

Levi’s Kobori said that the new water framework will, through energy and carbon savings, help the firm deliver on its science-based targets, while also improving local economies in developing nations and boosting supply chain worker wellbeing. 

In related news, Uniqlo’s parent company fast retailing has this week committed to cut water use at its Asia-based manufacturing facilities by 90% by 2030, against a 2017 baseline.

This reduction will be achieved through investments in water recycling systems and technology which saves water, as well as through a staff behaviour change scheme. Uniqlo will additionally switch from manual techniques traditionally used to produce distressed and patterned denim with laser-based, water-free methods – or with a low-water stone washing technique.

Sarah George

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