You’ve heard about slow food.
You may have heard about slow money.
Now it’s time for slow fashion.
Last night, Levi Strauss & Co. unveiled a new collection of sustainable mens clothing called Wellthread, part of its Dockers brand. Wellthread, which the company has described as the antithesis of fast fashion–the cheap, throwaway stuff that is sold by places like Zara and Forever 21–is an attempt to produce a line of clothing that meets the very highest standards for environmental and social responsibility. I wrote about Wellthread for The Guardian, here.
At the dinner, I was fortunate enough to be seated next to Chip Bergh, the CEO of Levi Strauss. He’s an engaging guy, and while I can’t quote from our conversation–we were having dinner, and so we decided to keep his comments off the record–I can tell you that he is not your run-of-the-mill CEO. He’s a vegan, for health reasons, he told me. (The second vegan CEO I’ve met–Coca Cola’s Neville Isdell was the first.) Chip is marathon runner, biker and triathlete who has raised thousands of dollars for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. (His parents and grandparents died of cancer.) He’s also committed to the values that have made Levi’s a social-responsibility leader for more than two decades. Those facts may sound random but they are likely connected–so many people I meet in the world of sustainable business are outdoor lovers or athletes who take care of their own health, and thus understand the connections between what they do at work and the health of the planet. That may sound like a stretch, but the sheer number of marathon runners in the sustainability world has persuaded me that it’s true.
In any event, Bergh these days has more to worry about than the sustainability performance at Levi Strauss. The company has been in a long slide, and he was hired in 2011 to turn it around. Levi’s sales had fallen from a peak in 1996 of $7.1 billion to $4 billion, give or take a few hundred millions, for much of the 2000s. Even as a privately-held company that doesn’t have to answer to Wall Street, that was unacceptable.
Bergh, who spent 28 years at Procter & Gamble before joining Levi Strauss, has reorganized the company, replaced much of the senior leadership team and exited some business. In FY2012, net revenues fell slightly to $4.6 billion and net income was $144 million, up a tick. For the first three quarters of FY2013, Levi’s has enjoyed modest top-line and bottom-line growth. Through it all, he said, the company’s commitment to doing business in a principled way has remained intact.
He seemed genuinely excited by the potential of Wellthread, which for now is a modest venture–almost like a beta test, or pilot project–but nevertheless represents a forward-thinking approach to sustainable fashion, one that begins with the commitment of a designer. here’s how my story begins:
Sixteen years of work as a fashion designer in New York was enough for Paul Dillinger. He quit and took a job teaching design at his alma mater, Washington University in St Louis. “I had become somewhat disillusioned – really challenged morally or ethically – by the industry,” he says.
Then a friend recruited Dillinger to work for Levi Strauss & Co Today, he’s leading a cutting-edge initiative to take sustainable design to new heights at the 160-year-old company: a Dockers line of clothes called Wellthread. The line brings together the best practices in materials sourcing and garment manufacturing, providing social and economic benefits to factory workers in Bangladesh and delivering durable khakis, jackets and T-shirts to consumers.
Dillinger wants to weave responsibility into every stage of design, manufacturing and usage, from the cotton fields to the factories to the market and beyond.
“I saw all these different nodes of activity in the company that were tackling different problems,” Dillinger said, when we met this week at Levi’s Eureka Innovation Lab, a research and development unit near the company’s headquarters in San Francisco. “The opportunity, to me, was to string all of these ideas together and create a systems approach to change.”
You can read the rest here.