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Levi’s Dockers Wellthread: Connecting the dots between smart design, environmental practices, and the worker well-being

by Dfleischer on January 21, 2014

This piece originally ran on GreenBiz.com.

Late last year, Levi Strauss & Company’s new innovation lab in San Francisco, aptly named Eureka, unveiled Dockers® Wellthread, an innovative design process that pushes the envelope on sustainable design, connecting the dots between smart design, environmental practices, and the well-being of the apparel workers who make the garments.  From materials sourcing to garment manufacturing to end-of-life, Levi’s set out to create a replicable process for designing durable apparel that is restorative to the environment and the community where they are made.  The result–a new line of men’s khakis, jackets and T-shirts that is not only soft to the touch, but also leaves a softer environmental and social footprint.  “How you make a garment is just as important as the garment itself,” stressed Michael Kobori, vice president of social and environmental sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co.

Smart Design:  Sustainability Driving Innovation

While there is a lot of talk these days about how sustainability can drive innovation, the innovation lab has taken this concept to heart and allowed Paul Dillinger, Senior Director of Design at Dockers® Brand, permission to set out to design the most sustainable piece of apparel in the industry, within a sustainable business model. The initial vision for the Wellthread process and pilot collection took shape as part of the Aspen Institute’s First Movers Fellowship.

Embedding the creative constraints of sustainability into the design process from the start unlocked innovation and business value in the form of a more efficient and flexible production process. “The design mind is still delighted by these creative challenges that are put to it. But if we put these guardrails on the activity, it actually has tremendous unlock in terms of business potential,” says Dillinger.

At the front end of the design process, he took into account considerations of social value, as well as looking at all the other leverage points for reducing environmental impact.  Guided by one of Levi’s core values to build sustainability into everything they do, combined with his willingness to ask ridiculous questions and tenacity to push the envelope on the manufacturing process, Dillinger birthed a new process that he believes will accelerate change.

“We wanted a tailored blazer made in a factory that invested in worker programs.  But the machinery at the factory just made jean jackets not tailored blazers.  So our designers and factories engineers utilized unprecedented collaboration and innovative techniques to create this blazer for you,” reads the hangtag on the new Dockers Wellthread blazer.

Lighter Environmental Footprint

The Dockers® design team and suppliers worked together to find ways to reduce water and energy use;  the manufacturing process will use roughly 30% less water and energy than conventional methods. This new process utilizes specialized garment-dyeing to reduce both water and energy consumption with cold-water pigment dyes for tops and salt-free reactive dyes for pants and jackets. In addition, the apparel is dyed in the factory, not in the mill – which allows for greater inventory agility because the garments are dyed-to-order.

The designers also considered responsible use and re-use with the end of the garment’s life in mind. Though recycling facilities are not widely available, the company anticipates that one day they will be. Extremely long staples of cotton can be more easily recycled, so the brand developed a unique, long-staple yarn for its premium Wellthread twill. The sundries include compressed cotton or metal that can be easily extracted by magnets.  Using a drying cycle is tough on fabric and hard on the environment, so the design team also added care instructions to wash in cold and a locker loop on the khakis to encourage line drying.

Improving Workers’ Well-Being

The Dockers® Wellthread khakis are made exclusively at one of the Improving Workers’ Well-Being pilot sites, a program developed in partnership with BSR and Ceres, aimed at improving the finances and wellbeing of workers in its supply chain in five core areas: economic empowerment, good health and family well-being, equality and acceptance, educational and professional development, and access to a safe and healthy environment.  A small, but important step in sending a direct message to suppliers—programs that improve the lives of factory workers are good business.

According to Andrea Moffat, vice president of corporate programs for Ceres reported earlier in the year, the pilot program is translating into action.  One Bangladesh-based supplier “has launched several initiatives providing services such as food to expectant mothers, free medical care, free transportation to and from work, and awards for attendance and production, all of which are designed to improve the lives of their employees.”

Go Small to Go Big

Levi’s is taking the go small to go big approach, with the intention of proving the concept before deploying it on a grander scale.   The business-case study of Wellthread explains, “So far, all these changes are being implemented at a relatively small scale to explore the results in terms of social and business value. Wellthread will make its debut in the Spring, and the company is exploring how future Dockers® and Levi’s® collections can capitalize on the process. “By having this little lab to test and substantiate ideas at small-risk scale, we’re then able to deploy these new best practices at large scale,” says Dillinger.

Initially, the line will be sold online and in stores in Europe, not to US consumers.  According to sustainable business journalist Marc Gunther, “Levi Strauss faces a big challenge of finding ways to market Wellthread to mainstream consumers so that the principles involved in its design can be deployed throughout the company. Beyond that, the company must figure out to reconcile a commitment to long-lasting clothes with a desire to grow revenue by selling more stuff.”  Dillinger is optimistic about getting customers excited about the new products.  “We assume our customers are smart and they care.”

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