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Levi’s Exec: Strong Culture Can Propel Sustainability Strategy

When building a sustainability action plan, companies should start by considering what they can best own and influence. Depending on their supply chain structure, category of goods and brand positioning, there are different issues and targets to take on and communication tactics to leverage.

During the “Nothing to Hide: Full Transparency on Sustainability” panel at NRF 2023: Retail’s Big Show on Jan. 17, Levi Strauss & Co.’s chief sustainability officer Jeffrey Hogue explained how sustainability relates to company culture. “Sustainability is probably one of the biggest culture change jobs or change management jobs within a company,” he said. “And if you’re working for a company that has very strong culture, I often find that you can use it to pull your strategy forward.”

Marissa Pagnani McGowan, chief sustainability officer, North America at L’Oreal, mentioned that individuals can also be instrumental in encouraging engagement and accelerating the agenda, providing a “source of inspiration.” “If someone’s very passionate, or you have a CEO who’s passionate, or a thought leader within your organization who’s passionate about something and they’re carrying a torch and people are rallying behind it, jump on that bandwagon,” she said.

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Sustainability cannot be a solo effort. Moderator Scot Case, vice president, CSR and sustainability at the National Retail Federation, said, “Every single role in the retail sector is a sustainability role. It is a team sport.”

This “team sport” mentality extends to suppliers. Since apparel production is typically allocated to numerous third-party factories and many brands work with the same manufacturers, suppliers are typically fielding multiple disparate sustainability demands from their buyers. Giving an example, Hogue said one company might request a new dyeing process while another is asking the factory to install solar panels. Instead, he suggested that brands align on their requests while also strengthening partnerships with producers.

Nothing to Hide panel NRF 2023 featuring Levi's sustainability chief Jeffrey Hogue (right)
From left, Scot Case, Marissa Pagnani McGowan and Jeffrey Hogue Courtesy

“Probably the way to move the needle is to partner deeply with your suppliers and try to eliminate this kind of transactional relationships,” Hogue said. “Because when you look at climate goals, these are long-term goals where you have to be within that supplier actually supporting them over time, developing roadmaps, providing financing in some cases so that they can deliver.”

Supplier-buyer relationships may also need to evolve or be dissolved to further sustainable sourcing. For instance, L’Oreal Group brand Kiehl’s has been sourcing its calendula leaves from a supplier for decades. However, its innovation team created a hydroponic solution that offers a 98 percent water savings, a reduction in energy use and faster yields. To make a switch to the more sustainable option, L’Oreal had to modify or end existing partnerships. “You really do have to think about what you’re walking away from, how you’re walking away from it,” Pagnani McGowan said.

Beyond the supply chain, brands must also engage consumers, the public sector and communities. Citing a survey of about 30,000 consumers conducted in partnership with brands including Levi’s, Hogue noted eight out of 10 shoppers now consider sustainability in their buying decisions, even if this may not always result in purchases. The research also found that consumers crave more sustainability information than they feel they’re currently receiving from companies.

One effort from Levi’s to help shoppers make better decisions is its “Buy Better, Wear Longer” campaign, which highlights the durability of its jeans. This has been the brand’s most successful campaign in its history.

Keeping items in use for longer—whether via timeless design or strong construction—is just one aspect of improving products’ life cycle impact through circularity. Circular design also encompasses fiber choice—such as picking a single material over a blend and using safe, sustainable inputs like recycled or organic cotton.

Circular design also revolves around recycling, and a key piece in facilitating reuse is collection. Pagnani McGowan noted that since beauty product containers can often be recycled curbside, L’Oreal is working on accessibility of these services in smaller towns. Although textiles are typically not included in curb collection, Hogue said there is room for government engagement—both for establishing preferences for sustainable goods and building circular infrastructure. Enabling consumers to more easily recycle makes them feel a “part of the solution,” per Pagnani McGowan.

Brands can also engage consumers through information. “We want to create an environment where consumers are informed and can choose the more sustainable option—we hope that’s ours, we believe it will be—but the idea is that they’re empowered to do that,” said Pagnani McGowan. “And that in turn raises the bar for the entire industry.”