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Levi’s Warns Against Making ‘Terrible Decisions at Scale’ in the Rush to Go Sustainable

In the rush to hop on the sustainability bandwagon, Levi Strauss made some mistakes in bringing to market products that missed the mark in being truly good for people and planet. But succeeding in the industry means owning up to those shortcomings, head of global product innovation Paul Dillinger told the audience at ReMode in Los Angeles Tuesday. And it also means making meaningful investments to do better.

Noting the danger of making “terrible decisions at scale,” Dillinger told of the Levi’s jean produced from recycled plastic, a feel-good consumer story from the diverted-from-the-landfill perspective but not great for the circularity-minded because, he said, that pair of pants can never be recycled.

That experience showed the iconic denim and apparel company the dangers of trying to “scale out of the gate,” Dillinger explained. Instead, Levi’s now pursues the test-and-learn approach that better catches bad ideas before scaling them up and wasting time and resources in the process.

The denimhead and Rivet 50 honoree blamed the rigors of the six-month fashion calendar for contributing to half-baked sustainability efforts. Trapped by that timeframe, some apparel business might rush a product to market even if it’s not the best it could be.

“Revolutions don’t happen that way,” Dillinger said.

Levi’s collaboration with Outerknown, the men’s apparel brand created by surfer Kelly Slater, takes a far more circular and sustainable design approach, where end of life is a first focus. The jacket featured in the collection, Dillinger explained, is made from all organic cotton and with buttons that can easily be removed so the fabric can be repurposed and recycled if need be. It’s intentionally “assembled to be re-activatable at the end of life,” he added, so that future designers can be less reliant on virgin resources.

“Otherwise, you found a place to hide your mess for one generation,” Dillinger said.

The Levi’s executive also called out companies that think sustainability can be an “add on” that serves to ramp up their business. Rather, he said, adopting sustainable principles will do the opposite—and keep brands and retailers as “small as they should be.”

“You shouldn’t expect sustainability to be the magic mechanism to unlock growth,” he said.