How Ethical Is Levi’s?

For over fifty years, Levi’s has been a name synonymous with rock ‘n’ roll, counterculture, and effortless style. It is proof of enduring brand power that its denim continues to trade high in the currency of cool. But is this household name doing anything to ensure its jeans are not just on-trend, but ethical and sustainable too? How ethical is Levi’s?

With a reported revenue of $5.8 billion USD in 2019 by parent company Levi Strauss & Co, it doesn’t require much imagination to picture the vast, global production machine behind these huge profits. Manufacturing on such a large scale is bound to have far-reaching consequences.

In 1991, Levi’s developed its Terms of Engagement – a Code of Conduct to guide ethical production throughout the denim giant’s supply chain. Levi’s claims the document was landmark in the fashion industry, and has influenced many other apparel companies to adopt similar codes.

So, does it work? Let’s compare principles with practice.

Environmental Impact

A product life cycle study commissioned by Levi’s showed that for one of its core products—Levi’s® 501® Medium Stonewash jeans—37% of their climate impact and 23% of water consumption occurred during the consumer care phase. Levi’s has taken this as a call to action to shift consumer attitudes away from fast-fashion based consumption and encourage customers to treat Levi’s jeans as a long-term investment. So how has this philosophy influenced its practices?

Levi’s has made strong commitments to sustainable denim production, including significantly reducing water use. By 2020, the Levi’s brand aims to make 80 percent of its products using Water<Less™ technique. It has also set a 25% reduction target for greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 for its direct emissions and consumed electricity, and so far it is on track to meet these targets.

In 2012, Greenpeace named and shamed Levi’s for connections to dangerous water pollution in Mexico in their ‘Toxic Threads’ report. Levi’s has since pledged to reduce the hazardous chemicals used to dye and treat its clothing, and is aiming for the elimination of hazardous chemicals by 2020. Thanks to all of this effort, we have given Levi’s a ‘Good’ rating for the environment.

Labour Conditions

Levi’s rates ‘Not Good Enough’ for labour. It scored a mid range 41-50% in Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index, as it traces most of its supply chain including all of the final stage of production.

Despite this positive step, there’s an area of the Levi’s supply chain that requires attention. Almost none of its supply chain is certified by labour standards which ensure worker health and safety, and Levi’s has made little progress towards ensuring the payment of a living wage for its workers across the supply chain. Given its huge profits, we think the brand could be doing far better on this front.

Animal Welfare

Levi’s animal welfare is ‘Not Good Enough’. It does not use fur, angora, or other exotic animal skin or hair. Its current Animal Welfare Policy insists that the supply chains for the sourcing of all animal products must be traceable where practicable to ensure humane practices. Despite this, it does still use leather, down feather, and wool without stating their sources, but states it supports wool from non-mulesed sheep and will work to “consolidate its wool sourcing accordingly, as it becomes commercially viable.”

Overall Rating

We rate Levi’s as ‘It’s A Start’ based on our own research. Our rating reflects the company’s ambition and ingenuity, particularly the continued headway it’s making with regards to environmentally sustainable production methods. Levi’s is committed to producing quality, hard-wearing products. With that in mind, along with some denim-care-know-how, investing in a pair timelessly designed Levi’s jeans can be a worthwhile investment. But if you want to invest in a brand that is sustainable on all fronts, we have picked some ethical alternatives for you!

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