Levi’s on worker well-being: ‘When we lead, others will follow’

Levi Strauss and Co. is working to ensure that its factory workers are not just safe, but thriving.

The denim company announced today it will expand its “worker well-being” program to cover a wider number of countries and offer a more robust set of programs, including financial literacy, health initiatives and personal empowerment. The announcement comes 25 years after the implementation of its supplier code of conduct, a policy to better oversee supply chain management.

After first piloting the well-being program in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Egypt, Haiti and Pakistan in 2011, the brand is now offering programming to 12 additional countries, which will have an impact on a total of 97,500 employees, up from 29,500. The aim is that by 2020, 80 percent of Levi products will be produced by factories that are part of the program and that by 2025, 300,000 workers will reap the benefits.

According to Paul Dillinger, vp and head of global product innovation at Levi’s, the crux of the effort is fostering stronger partnerships between Levi’s, partnering NGOs that help implement the programs, and the factory workers. In order to do this, the company worked collaboratively with employees, asking them questions to determine the policies would most improve their conditions.

“[We were focused on how] we can connect with people and administer a service and ask questions, ” he said. “Rather than be prescriptive and directive, we went in asking and getting answers from communities that we could have only guessed at.”

Transparency at the factory level has been on the rise in the retail industry. In September, Gap Inc. announced it is releasing its list of global factories that produce garments across its six brands. Levi’s has long listed its factories on its website, part of widespread worker safety initiatives following the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 employees.

The next step for Levi’s will be inspiring fellow retailers to adopt similar sustainability policies, rather than focusing on environmentalism as a competitive advantage, according to Chip Bergh, CEO of Levi’s.

“We believe when we lead, others will follow, and we can make a bigger impact on the apparel industry by opening some of these things up,” Bergh said during a panel discussion at the Fashion Tech Forum in New York on Thursday.

Dillinger added that Levi’s has formerly shared their strategies for minimizing water use, rather than keep it shrouded in secrecy. “The truth of the matter is if you find a way to save water and you don’t tell people, you’re a jerk.”

The company has fostered industry transparency by holding symposiums and conferences at its headquarters in San Francisco. The events are focused not just on educating competitors but also on raising sustainability awareness for smaller brands, Dillinger said.

“We have the power to steer some really big boats in this industry, as well as small startups and innovative smaller companies that have a vision for a sustainable future,” he said.

Get news and analysis about fashion, beauty and culture delivered to your inbox every morning.