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2020 in Review: Experience Helped Levi’s Navigate the Year’s Crises

Like every apparel company, Levi Strauss & Co. (LS&Co.) is continuing to weather the storm that is 2020. But unlike everyone else, the heritage denim brand has more than 167 years of experience that it’s been able to call on throughout the tumultuous year.

Within its lifetime, Levi’s has seen countless political moments, civil rights movements and even a global health pandemic. But despite this hyper-relevant experience, the company was not immune to the devastating effects of all crises combining at once. Similar to the rest of the industry, the company took a dip in Q2 during the peak of the pandemic’s repercussions.

But thanks to its swift recalibration and investment in e-commerce and global strategies, it was able to recover faster than expected in Q3, and is expecting to emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever.

“I believe the true character of a company is shown in a time of crisis, and as we have in the past, we will navigate this one by leveraging our strengths and seizing opportunities that will help us continue to thrive over the long-term,” said LS&Co. president and CEO Chip Bergh.

Pandemic pivot

And that’s exactly what the company did. During the early days of the pandemic, Levi’s re-fashioned stores into mini distribution centers, allowing the brand to ship from retail locations. Accompanied by the launch of curbside pickup, BOPIS and virtual stylist appointment scheduling, the quick and strategic pivot helped the company remain engaged with consumers during a time when retailers were reporting a major disconnect.

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Part of Levi’s pandemic response also included taking care of its own employees of past and present, providing them with more than $1.75 million in relief this year alone. Through the company’s nonprofit organization, the Red Tab Foundation, it was able to assist Levi’s employees, retirees and their families, and even provide a “Hardship Fund Playbook” for the rest of the industry to adopt. As of Nov. 4, the playbook was downloaded by more than 300 organizations including nonprofits and Fortune 500 companies. 

Levi’s is expecting to emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever after investing in pandemic relief, diversity and sustainability.
Levi’s Denizen Levi's

Diversity and inclusion

While the world fought through a global health and financial crisis, the U.S. was experiencing a civil rights movement that garnered the support of many throughout the fashion industry. LS&C0. threw its support behind the Black Lives Matter movement by making sizable donations to relevant organizations and deeply investigating its own diversity problem.

In June, the company published its first diversity report, which highlighted its need to both employ and appeal to a wider demographic of people. It vowed to share annual updates on employee demographics and diversity statistics, publish wage equity audits every other year and search for a black leader to join its board of directors—and it’s already followed through on some of these promises. In November, 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.

The brand’s commitment to diversity also shone through in its collaborations. Levi’s partnered with streetwear king Angelo Baque on a vintage denim collection in November, focusing on the “vulnerability and love” within Black families. The accompanying campaign, photographed by Quil Lemons, featured Lemons’ own family and was shot in his hometown of Philadelphia.

Levi’s also partnered with San Francisco-based designer Heron Preston on its second collaboration together, this time centered around the concept that “mistakes are OK.” The streetwear-influenced collection features a series of denim with intentional errors such as exposed and asymmetrical pocketing, an upside-down coin pocket, mismatched hardware and more.

Sustaining progress

Despite the many important issues to focus on, though, Levi’s remained committed to its sustainability progress, calling for the adoption of energy-efficient trucks in its supply chain in July and opening an experiential store in Shanghai that’s on track to becoming China’s first LEED-certified retail space.

The brand also introduced what it calls its “most sustainable jean,” made with 60 percent organic cotton and Circulose, Re:newcell’s breakthrough blend of 20 percent recycled denim and 20 percent sustainably sourced viscose. The jeans are part of Levi’s Wellthread line, which develops sustainable fiber and fabric innovations such as cottonized hemp and Water<Less.

In May, the company worked with Hong Kong-based upcycled apparel company The R Collective to make old Levi’s denim traceable. The project used Levi’s inventory of irregular and leftover samples, as well as technology from software solutions provider Evrythng to create a digital roadmap of the garment’s supply chain journey.

Shifting strategies

This year, Levi’s shifted its strategies to better reflect changing consumer demand, which also conveniently benefits the environment. In October, the brand launched Levi’s SecondHand, its first buy-back program allowing customers to purchase secondhand denim on the Levi’s website. The program  invites customers to return their used Levi’s jeans and jackets in exchange for a gift card towards a future purchase. The new initiative reinforces the company’s sustainability goals as well as the industry’s growing attraction to resale. 

Though the company is expanding its partnership with Target, it is also planting seeds for a greater direct-to-consumer (DTC) strategy, which Bergh says provides it with “much more control of how our brand shows up”—a necessity during an uncertain year. Nine years ago when he joined the company, DTC was responsible for just 21 percent of revenue—not it has shot up to 40 percent.

In October, Bergh initiated a series of leadership changes that would help facilitate a greater emphasis on DTC.

“By doubling down on the company’s key growth drivers—the continued strengthening of our greatest asset, the Levi’s brand; leading with DTC and diversifying our business; and fully embracing digital to transform our operations and processes—we are capitalizing on the opportunities created by the global pandemic, which has accelerated changes in consumer behavior and the competitive landscape,” he said.