Levi Strauss tests consumer appetite for ‘slow fashion’ jeans

Levis Strauss CEO Chip Bergh has revealed plans by the denim maker to explore whether its customers will pay a premium for more sustainable jeans, calling his brand the 'ultimate in slow fashion'.

Speaking yesterday at Fortune Magazine’s Brainstorm Green conference in California, Bergh said the company built its clothing to last and had a pair of jeans in its archives that were 135 years old.

“If you treat them right, they will last a long time … probably longer than most peoples’ waist lines,” he told delegates. “And we’ve got solutions for that too. Once you outgrow [them], we are the number one brand in hand-me-downs.”

Bergh went on to talk about how Levi is pushing the envelope on sustainable design with its Dockers Wellthread pilot – a capsule collection of around 2,000 garments that look to interlock design principles and environmental practice with worker well-being.

Scaling up

Levi is working with selected suppliers on the initiative and trying to improve the lives of workers who are making the garments in participating factories.

“The concept is to try to develop a line of product that is sustainable in every single facet of the word, not just environmentally sustainable, but socially sustainable and economically sustainable,” Bergh said. “If it works, we think we can move the market and create opportunities that will raise the water level for working conditions in this industry.”

However, he said it was too early to think about scaling it up – for it to work, consumers must be willing to pay a premium for a more sustainable product.

“The thing that kills you in this industry is inventory – there’s nothing worse than a bad bet because it can be really financially punishing,” Bergh admitted.

“It’s questionable how far the consumer is willing to go, it’s a premium-priced product, it incorporates better cotton. First and foremost we wanted to test if we can really make this happen. Is it production viable, and second, is it commercially viable?

“The idea is: fail fast, fail small, or succeed fast, succeed small and then scale it up.”

Water use

Bergh also gave an update on the company’s water reduction achievements, reporting that the Levi WaterLess denim range now represents 20% of the company’s total business. 

“Back in 2008, we completed a lifecycle assessment of the making of blue jeans – basically 50% of the water usage is consumed by the time the consumer gets their jeans. The other 50% is after the consumer buys them and starts washing them,” he said. 

Levi is trying to educate its customers in better water use, and Bergh revealed that the jeans he was wearing hadn’t been washed for a year. “If you talk to real denim aficionados they tell you not to wash your blue jeans,” he maintained, adding that regular wiping down with a wet sponge or toothbrush would suffice.

Maxine Perella

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