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Why Levi’s New Water Strategy Represents an ‘Evolution in Thinking’

Levi Strauss & Co. has a new water strategy, one the denim giant says represents not only an “evolution in thinking” around water use in a global supply chain facing increasing water stress but also a “new way” to define successful water stewardship in manufacturing.

Unveiled Thursday, the new approach will allow Levi’s to hone efforts to reduce its cumulative water use for manufacturing by 50 percent in water-stressed areas by 2025 in a way that is “responsive” and “contextual” rather than one size fits all.

“We all know that water is perhaps the most critical resource on the planet and that many places, including countries the apparel industry sources from, are struggling with water crises,” Liz O’Neill, executive vice president and president of global product, innovation and supply chain at Levi’s, said in a statement. “This announcement is an illustration of what sustainability means to us now: innovative, responsive, scalable programs that drive impact and inspire collective action to address the most pressing social and environmental issues facing our business, industry and planet.”

Building on work accomplished through its open-source Water<Less program, which launched in 2011 and has reduced water consumption during manufacturing by as much as 96 percent in some products, the data-driven, outcome-oriented “first-of-its-kind” approach will address both areas under its purview and outside its direct control, Levi’s said.

Tailored water-use targets for suppliers

Specifically the blue-jean purveyor will work with key suppliers representing 80 percent of its total product volume to set—and achieve—specific water-use targets for factories where Levi’s, Dockers, Signature by Levi Strauss & Co and Denizen products are made or finished.

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The targets will be tailored according to geography and water context, meaning facilities in countries facing higher water stress will have stricter benchmarks than their less-thirsty counterparts.

Water<Less designation expanding

At the same time, Levi’s will be imbuing its Water<Less designation with broader meaning. Beyond signifying that a given product was made with Water<Less techniques or using recycled water, the mark will also extend to facilities, fabric or products achieving targets that meet Water<Less qualifications.

And if Levi’s customers are still unfamiliar with Water<Less label, they won’t be for long. The company says it will help all of its key suppliers achieve the Water<Less designation by 2025 by leveraging existing Water<Less techniques, Levi’s collaboration with the Apparel Impact Institute’s Clean by Design program, which is scaling up mill improvements worldwide, and its partnership with the International Finance Corporation’s Partnership for Cleaner Textiles, which provides guidance and low-cost financing for upgrades such as water-efficient machinery.

Boosting watersheds and clean drinking water

“Beyond the fence line,” Levi’s will link arms with suppliers, other brands, non-governmental organizations and stakeholders at the grassroots level to develop programs that boost the long-term health of watersheds in key sourcing locations.

Already, Levi’s is working World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Earth Genome and Arizona State University in the Ravi River basin outside Lahore in Pakistan to map and diagnose sources of water stress and, eventually, develop and implement targeted solutions to “only use as much water as replenishes in the area naturally,” it said.

Providing greater access to clean, safe drinking water for surrounding communities is also on the agenda. Levi’s says it will continue to promote this through its suppliers, several of which have installed freshwater faucets to make potable water available.

Whittling raw materials footprint and cutting chemicals

Levi’s will continue to reduce the water footprint of its raw materials by incorporating better cotton-farming methods and delving deeper into the use of water-sipping alternatives like hemp and regenerated fibers. Likewise, the brand intends to maintain efforts to curtail water pollution through its 2020 Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals commitment and its own open-source Screened Chemistry protocols.

“We believe this is the future for our company and our industry when it comes to managing water use and conserving water,” said Michael Kobori, vice president of sustainability at Levi’s. “Given the water context in many countries, we have to act quickly and wisely. We feel this strategy does both, while delivering benefits to numerous stakeholders in our business and in supply chain communities around the world.”