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Levi’s Chip Bergh Slams Political Criticism: ‘Business Leaders Have a Responsibility’

A brand determined to position itself on what it considers the right side of history, Levi Strauss & Co. (LS&Co.) has a track record of taking a stance on emotionally charged issues.

During an annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday, LS&Co. president and CEO Chip Bergh explained the importance of using his platform for good to shareholders who questioned not only his position on political and societal issues, but also why it was a part of the business conversation to begin with.

“Business leaders have a responsibility to ensure the safety of their employees, their customers and their communities,” he said.

The questions followed a televised interview with Bergh and CNN reporter Poppy Harlow that aired earlier this month, in which he criticized Georgia’s new voting laws, calling them “restrictive” and “racist” and explaining how Levi’s is working with legislators to ensure they aren’t passed in other states. Critics of the new law claim the changes present barriers to voting, and unfairly target people of color.

Levi’s has been an avid champion of voters’ rights and in 2020 alone donated $3 million to nonprofit organizations committed to providing fair access to polls. Bergh said the company will continue to take a stance on this and other issues that affect society’s wellbeing.

“I have a platform and we’re committed to making change,” he told Harlow. “This company has been around for 180 years [because] we’re not afraid to take a position on issues that we feel are really important.”

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Gun control was another topic brought up during the Q&A portion of the shareholder meeting, to which Bergh responded in a similar manner, highlighting that gun violence in America has only worsened in the past few weeks: A CNN report showed that from March 16 to April 20, the U.S. counted at least 50 mass shootings. Bergh noted that inaction from leaders is only exacerbating the issue, and said Levi’s “will keep at this fight for as long as it takes.”

In an email to employees following Tuesday’s guilty verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial for the killing of George Floyd, he reiterated his plan to lend his voice to advocate for change.

In the email, Bergh described the protests that followed Floyd’s murder last summer as a “moment of social reckoning as I realized that our country has made little progress in breaking the structures of racism.” He went on to point out that since Chauvin’s trial began on March 29, at least 64 people have died at the hands of law enforcement nationwide. “Black and Latino people were more than half of those killed,” he wrote. “This is unacceptable and must end—it tears our families and communities apart, erodes trust in our institutions and keeps America from fulfilling its true potential. None of us can afford to be silent.”

Taking a strong stance on social and political issues does not appear to hurt Levi’s. During the shareholder meeting, Harmit Singh, LS&Co.’s executive vice president and CFO, reported that Levi’s only had one unprofitable quarter last year, despite the global pandemic that severely impacted the fashion industry. Bergh attributed the success to Levi’s swift strategizing—strengthening its focus on direct-to-consumer, refashioning stores into mini distribution centers, and increasing engagement with customers—as well as its unwavering commitment to its values.

Last year, Levi’s published its first-ever diversity report and made a public pledge to do better. Since then, it named Elizabeth A. Morrison chief diversity, inclusion and belonging officer, and the following month it appointed Ulta’s Elliott Rodgers to its board of directors. Through its Red Tab Foundation, Levi’s provided over $2 million to employees and retirees facing hardship as a result of the pandemic.

“We doubled down on our strategic priorities and increased our focus on how to not just survive, but to emerge a stronger, more profitable company, all without compromising investment in the company’s long-term growth and sustainability,” Bergh said.

He also responded to questions surrounding Levi’s continued use of leather patches despite its position as a sustainable and ethical brand. The question came from a representative from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which in 2019 purchased enough shares of LS&Co. required to submit shareholder resolutions and secure speaking rights at annual meetings. Bergh noted that all of Levi’s materials, including leather, are sourced in a responsible and environmentally sustainable manner, and that the team is continuously in search of material innovations that can deliver a environmental impact reductions at scale.

This year, the company will continue its focus on sustainability and will roll out its recently launched “Buy Better, Wear Longer” campaign featuring famous changemakers such as Jaden Smith, Xiye Bastida and Melati Wijsen who reinforce Levi’s commitment to making quality clothing that lasts for generations. The campaign calls attention to the brand’s use of cottonized hemp and organic cotton, as well as its sustainable Water<Less manufacturing methods.

The company also has plans to invest in digital and AI tools to streamline supply chain and optimize assortment planning, which Bergh said will shorten go-to-market times and ultimately increase profitability.