Levi Strauss & Co. wants to do right by all of the apparel workers around the planet who make their products. Through the company’s Worker Well-being initiative, which launched in 2011, LS&Co. collaborates with suppliers and local service providers to focus on financial empowerment, health and family well-being, and equality and acceptance.
Since starting in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Egypt, Haiti, and Pakistan, the initiative has expanded to 12 countries. By 2025, LS&Co.’s goal is to implement Worker Well-being with all of their strategic suppliers, reaching 300,000 workers.
The business returns have been clear. In Bangladesh, for example, more women return after maternity leave. Absenteeism and turnover rates are lower in Egypt.
“More brands are recognizing the importance of going beyond compliance,” said Anne Madison, senior vice president product development and sourcing for Levi Strauss & Co. She works closely with the design and merchandising teams on sourcing, product creation, manufacturing, vendor allocation, quality, and cost across all of the company’s brands.
Recently we caught up with Madison to learn more about how LS&Co.’s approach to worker well-being fits into broader sustainability efforts.
What does a sustainable supply chain mean for development and sourcing at LS&Co.?
A sustainable supply chain looks at all aspects of the business. It focuses on everything from concept to material selection — we’ve been doing a lot around sustainable fiber — to sourcing to the vendors we work with. Through our programs, we’ve put in an effort to ensure that we push the needle.
We have sustainable cotton goals, product strategies, carbon and Science Based Targets. Our Water<Less program continues to grow, not only on the manufacturing side but we’re rolling that out to mills.
With all of these programs, every function plays a role internally and externally. We want to get to 100% BCI cotton. We want to get to 100% Worker Well-being, and we’ve got a roadmap to get to that point. It’s pretty massive. We’re starting to layer on even more by looking at purchasing practices, harassment, all of these things that are critical to the industry.
How is the Worker Well-being program going?
The program is in 103 factories globally, and it reached more than 190,000 people by the end of 2018. Our original target was to reach 200,000 by 2020, but it looks likes we’ll surpass that this year.
Because I travel to the factories a lot, I see the direct impact that we’re having on literacy, financial commitments, and training. We continue to roll the program out to other suppliers, and we’re glad to see that, beyond our support, some vendors are investing their own funds into the programs. The programs are open-source, and we’re sharing data from them with others such as Eileen Fisher and Target.
Where does Worker Well-being fit into overall sustainability for LS&Co.?
For decades, we’ve worked to establish the highest level of worker well-being possible throughout our supply chain because it’s the right thing to do and it’s good for our suppliers and our business. With increased NGO and activist activity on the labor side, it is absolutely critical.
There is a lot of concern in the workforce around automation and apparel workers. There is also continued price pressure. There are industry discussions among leading brands about how to improve worker well-being. Everybody — internally, externally, the vendors that work with us — is committed to embracing and rolling this out because they see the benefit. They see less absenteeism and a happier workforce.
What are some of the steps that you’re taking?
A couple weeks ago we had a meeting in Hong Kong with Michael Kobori, who oversees the sustainability team. In addition to the sustainability team, we brought in my sourcing leads and worked as one, combining the supply chain and product creation organization.
The beauty of this new structure with Liz O’Neill at the helm is that we’ve brought the product creation, sourcing, and supply chain teams together. That allows us to connect the dots between the enterprise and all functions: here are the goals for ’19, ’20, and ’21 — how can we collectively achieve them? Where do we have roadblocks and challenges? We’re going to make the biggest impact that way.
You mentioned automation earlier — how is Project FLX going?
We’ve pretty much fully operationalized this in the supply base. Whether you call it Manufacturing 4.0, it’s automation that’s bringing our vendors into a cleaner production mentality and setup. We’ve gotten millions of units out, and we’re taking advantage of the agility it provides to scale up labor. So far it’s very successful.
Are there additional benefits you’ve been noticing since Project FLX launched?
Initially it was based on our Screened Chemistry program, which removes harmful chemicals from the supply chain from the outset, and our Water<Less program. Then it evolved into more of an agility model. We still have that umbrella of sustainability while delivering on the needs of the business in a faster way. I’ve seen more agility centers and cleaner FLX rooms open up in the factories where we work.
How does the increased automation affect workers?
What we’re seeing is up-skilling, jobs that weren’t as advantageous going from analog to digital. The clean aspect of it — the limited chemicals, the clean rooms — is positive not only for us, but for the industry and the suppliers we work with.
What’s next for you on the development and sourcing side?
We’re always looking for ways to improve our process, whether it be sourcing or Manufacturing 4.0, or other automation. Innovation is in our blood so we’re trying to find ways to do more for the business, connecting it to the planet, the people who make our products, and the communities we work in.