levi's laser machine

Photo: Provided.

Levi’s Saves Drip: Fashion brand turns to sustainability

Read all about the sustainability efforts of Levi’s who are working in partnership with the City of Cape Town to preserve water.

levi's laser machine

Photo: Provided.

Made from sturdy material, resulting in garments that are both durable and versatile, denim has made its way into the wardrobes of most, becoming the go-to for casual and streetwear. When one thinks of the best in the business, an image of a little red tag comes to mind, with the vertically placed word: LEVI’S written on it in white.

Fashion sustainability, the Levi’s way

Photo: Provided.

It is no secret that the fashion industry is harmful for the environment, from the emergence of fast fashion production, to manufacturing processes which themselves are the cause of much havoc, both environmentally and socially for the factory workers.

One of the most harmful sectors within fashion belongs to a material which has become a societal staple: denim. Denim production is especially harmful to the environment, due to its use of harsh chemicals, unethical cotton sourcing and, most pertinent to the city of Cape Town, the amount of water used in the production process. 

Levi’s has firmly found its way back into the mainstream must-have’s since the 10s decade. This is due to the brand focusing on the culture of the brand, and appealing to the youth culture of today through initiatives such as the Eureka Innovation Lab and leading movements in the industry by encouraging people to donate rather than discard their clothing.

Being pioneers in the denim industry, which can be taxing on the environment, Levi’s have included a planet-based care tag in their clothing, with tips on how to best preserve their denims. They have also implemented environmentally friendly practices in their manufacturing processes in order to reduce pollution. 

This youth culture following is evident in movies or TV shows from the 1980s, where you’ll witness a decade awash in Levi’s. And for contemporary proof of that, look no further than the Stranger Things series, which takes place during the 1980s. The show recreates every detail of that era, even down to the Three Musketeers candy bar wrappers. And since Levi’s® was a major staple of 1980s fashion, it makes sense that the characters would regularly sport a wide array of Levi’s products.

Levi’s is the epitome the effortlessly cool classic American style. Since their invention by Levi Strauss & Co. in 1873, Levi’s® jeans have become the most recognisable and imitated clothing in the world, capturing the imagination and loyalty of people for generations. After taking a dip in popularity in the 2000s, Levi’s are back – and this time, as attuned to pop culture as ever.

One needn’t look further than their recent collaboration with the Netflix smash series, Stranger Things to attest to this. Their collab collection featured an iconic pale yellow sweater with “ELEVEN” written on it, and the classic 501 jeans, with the leather logo patch at the back sewn on upside down, making reference to the iconic Upside Down world from the series. 

Levi’s is arguably the biggest brand in denim, having a long-standing history for decades ever since. The brand is known for producing high quality denim products, with a red brand tag sewn into their merchandise. The 501 jeans are their most famous jeans, though the brand has diversified over the century. Denim’s started off as worker-wear, transforming since then into a staple in the wardrobe of many as a casual item. From workers to veterans, the popularity spiked and found its home in youth culture.

Denim in notorious for its effect on the environment. The process of creating the worn, stone-wash look was labour intensive, requiring workers to physically wash the denim with large stones. The number of litres of water used to create one pair of jeans is also astounding, at 3600l per pair. 

Thankfully, companies like Levi’s are transforming the industry, pushing the previously infamous boundaries through innovation. In the industrial area of Epping, situated in Cape Town, is a massive Levi’s factory, where jeans are created to service the southern hemisphere. Having experienced a severe drought in recent times, Levi’s has been left with the task of producing drip, all while preserving the drops.

You may have found yourself in a LEVI’s store, surrounded by branded merchandise in a wooden interior store setting. You’re likely to hear music in the background, and be approached by a sales team member to assist you as you browse, finding the style you want in the size best suited to your height and fit. Whether you want straight-leg or skinny fits, you’re likely to meet your perfect match in the fitting room. Feeling the denim on your skin, do you ever wonder where exactly these jeans came from, and the journey they’ve taken before reaching you?

A visit to the Cape Town factory

Levi’s factory in Cape Town. Photo: Provided.

Approaching the factory, one turns down a road, seeing a warehouse-sized building behind silver fencing, with little yellow flowers growing through them. Once you pass the security check, you’re in. Before you can see the jeans being manufactured and distributed, there is a quick safety information session and signature of indemnity. 

In a large room sits rows of sewing machines, each with a worker seated at them. They’re listening to loud house music jams as they feed the fabric into the machines, the needles piecing the threads through in quick succession. Under the florescent lighting, you see denim everywhere you look, with each section taking the material one step closer to completion. As you pass the machines, you’ll see industrial-size trolleys with stacks of navy and black denim, headed for the laser room. 

In the room, you’ll see workers handing up a pair of jeans on the arms of a machine. The machine transports the jeans into position. The graphic designer sits on the one side of the room, programming the machine to match the approved product design on his computer. With this, lasers beam at the jeans, moving from left to right, leaving a trail of indigo smoke as it etches lines and fades into the denim.

This is a more innovative way of producing the acid or stone washes, using a less abrasive and quicker method. Where one person would take about 20 minutes to create the effect by hand, these machines can flip the jeans and have them lasered up in 15 seconds. This, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that jobs are lost, as it instead creates jobs in other fields of the manufacturing process. 

From here, you enter into the biggest laundry room you could imagine. Washing machines the size of micro apartments are ready for up to 180 jeans at a time. The number os washes depend on the desired style. Once this process is complete, they are stretched out and dried, before getting their final touches and being sent off to stores. 

To combat the issues of excessive water usage in the production of denim, Levi Strauss & Co. proudly partnered with The Nature Conservancy to support the Greater Cape Town Water Fund. The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organisation working in 72 countries, dedicated to conserving the lands and waters. Guided by science, they create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together.

A borehole was installed in 2018 at the Levi’s factory in Epping. The factory is currently using a combination of municipal and borehole water for the production (wash/laundry) process. They have used approximately 24 million liters of borehole water over the last 15 months which equates to approximately 725k units of product being processed using borehole water.

This partnership has culminated through the thoughtful and timely effort to support and strengthen water resources in the greater Cape Town area. It is aimed at addressing a pressing environmental need, but also stands to deliver social and economic benefits to disadvantaged communities.

LS&Co. through their Levi’s Foundation have provided a three-year grant of $100,000 to support the Greater Cape Town Water Fund, an initiative being launched and managed by The Nature Conservancy. A water fund is an innovative tool that enables downstream water users (e.g., cities, businesses, utilities) to invest in upstream conservation projects that protect nature’s ability to replenish watersheds more effectively. 

By proactively funding water- and soil-saving activities in specific parts of their watershed, cities can enhance their water quality and quantity at a fraction of the cost of water treatment infrastructure. Nature and upstream communities benefit too as conservation practices supported through the water fund yield healthier habitat, improved agricultural yields, and green jobs.  

The Greater Cape Town Water Fund is targeting the removal of invasive plants that prevent Cape Town’s water sources from being replenished. In fact, some 38 billion liters of water per year are being lost as these plants absorb them. Instead, that water will now be replenishing Cape Town’s reservoirs and aquifers. By controlling invasive species and restoring habitat, the city could gain up to a two-month supply of water at a small fraction of the cost of desalination.

Creative, cost-effective solutions like this, which deliver triple-bottom-line benefits to people, nature, and the economy, are the hallmark of the Conservancy’s water fund model, and the reason the City of Cape Town invited the Conservancy to help start a water fund there.

In further efforts to improve water sustainability, Levi Strauss & Co. have partnered with the City of Cape Town. For Levi’s, this is an opportunity to continue their pioneering efforts for progress, by putting their values of originality, courage and integrity to the test. By doing this, they are able to play their part in combating the range of issues faced by the planet, such as the limited resources.

It is important for an industry who historically has had a massive toll, to be the first to correct that. Levi’s has adopted a profits-through-principles approach to business, with efforts focused on reducing impact in four key material areas — water, chemicals, carbon and people.

In partnership with the city

Project team from Levi’s®, City of Cape Town, the BVI Enjineering team, project management team and Councilor Xanthea Limberg. Photo: Provided.

The partnership with the City of Cape Town involved the City extending its treated effluent network which comes from the Athlone Wastewater Treatment Works, taking the pipeline a further 2 km’s to Epping for the first time, to the Levi’s® manufacturing facility. “The City will provide Levi Strauss & Co. with treated effluent water, at the approved tariff rate, which will enable us to use 100% re-cycled water in our jeans production process” says Gavin van der Horst. 

The City’s Mayoral Committee Member for Water and Waste, councillor Xanthea Limberg adds, “The City applauds Levi Strauss & Co. for opting to make use of recycled water in their production process instead of drinking quality water.” This follows a call by the city’s for businesses to make use of treated effluent for operational and irrigation purposes, as an important part of building our water resilience as outlined in the City’s Water Strategy.

This partnership project to lay the pipes and is due to be complete in October of this year. This will provide them with +-72 million liters of water on an annual basis which will enable them to use 100% reuse/recycle water in our production process. In the future, they will look to expand on the use of the available recycled water in other areas i.e. ablution facilities to further decrease our usage of the municipal supply of water.

Levi’s is committed to using less water in its manufacturing process worldwide. Michael Kobori has led sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co. since 2001. Under Michael’s tenure, Levi Strauss & Co. has been a pioneer on sustainability through itsWater<Less™ production techniques; commitment to Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals; establishment of a Science-based carbon emissions target; innovative Worker Well-being program; and Care for the Planet™ product labels to encourage consumer awareness of sustainable garment care.

They have created the Water<less label to address this need. In 2018, 67% of the product made by Levi’s® globally, was made using the Water<less™ technique, with the goal of reaching 80% by 2020. 80% of the product manufactured in Epping already carries the Water<less™ label, with the aim of reaching 85% by 2020. 

Apart from water usage, denim produced often requires the use of heavy chemicals. Globally, Levi’s® have pledged to reach zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020, which the South African branch forms part of.

Kobori explains, “We are part of the Clean Chain project which monitors chemical usage at vendors. There is a team designated to take care of chemicals and they are in close contact with our chemical suppliers to ensure that chemicals are screened and meet Levi Strauss & Co. requirements … We were one of the first companies to establish a Restricted Substances List (RSL) forbidding the use of certain potentially harmful chemicals, and we were the first to set stringent standards for wastewater leaving supplier factories. We are Member of Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) it is a collaboration of leading brands, value chain affiliates, and associate contributors committed to advancing towards zero discharge of hazardous chemicals in the textile, leather, and footwear value chain. Our Screened Chemistry program, a hazard-based approach that keeps harmful compounds out of the supply chain, has been adopted by other brands and is becoming the industry standard.”

In 2018, Levi Strauss &Co. announced Project F.L.X., a transformative new process for finishing jeans that will result in a more sustainable supply chain and a cleaner jean. In the Epping factory, “currently +-50% of our production volume goes through the laser production process. This has enabled us to significantly reduce the water and chemical usage in the production process,” says Kobori.

Levi Strauss & Co. have globally introduced an ambitious plan to reduce carbon emissions with their 2025 Climate Action Strategy. By 2025, they have pledged to use 100% renewable electricity, to have a 90% reduction in Greenhouse gas emissions and a 40% reduction in GHG emissions.

Kobori adds, “We have ambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions in our owned and operated facilities and across our global supply chain. This will be achieved by working with key suppliers to expand the International Finance Corporation’s Partnership (IFC) for Cleaner Textiles (PaCT). The IFC PaCT is an innovative public-private partnership that provides suppliers with technical expertise on managing water and energy efficiently and access to low-cost financing to support sustainable energy and water investments.”

Conducting ethical business practices is not new to Levi Strauss & Co. It one of the first global companies to re-enter the South African market following democracy in 1994. The company remains committed to empowerment and upliftment, with 80% of its first staff intake were previously unemployed or had no prior industry experience. The company now employs over 400 people with offices in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban. 

Levi’s is supports the local industry, as Levi’s jeans sold in South Africa are manufactured in Levi’s production facility in Epping. Their other latest campaign is “United by the Beat Featuring Rogue,” showcasing how music unites people worldwide. This is in collaboration with South African-born musician and author, Rogue. By working with individuals from the international community, Levi’s aims “to prove that no matter where you are, no matter what you listen to, we’re all united by the beat.”

One of the most important issues facing the fashion industry is the health and well-being of apparel workers. In South Africa, the clothing manufacturing industry in South Africa is unionized and minimum wages, leave and other employee benefits are regulated by the Bargaining Council.

“At Levi Strauss & Co., we offer salaries above the recommended pay rate in the Western Cape Clothing Industry, supplementary healthcare plans, with integrated on-site medical services and a range of wellness activities as well as 5 days of annual leave entitlement, on top of the regulation mandate,” says Kobori. “We are committed to fostering a supportive work environment and through insights derived from surveys and discussions between HR and employees, we have identified top concerns around issues like job security, debt, mental wellness and basic living necessities and have introduced programs to address these needs. We have a global body called the Red Tab Foundation which assists employees in difficult financial situations to apply for assistance. We also have a robust people development and training program,” he concludes.

In 2018, 67% of the cotton used by Levi’s® globally was sourced from the Better Cotton Initiative growers. The aim is to target 100% use of sustainable cotton by 2020. In South Africa, “the main source of fabric supply comes out of Lesotho. Currently 75% of the fabric purchased is classified as part of the BCI program. We are also set to achieve the targeted 100% use of sustainable cotton by 2020,” says Kobori.

So, as you take a final look at your jeans in the mirror, gliding your hand over the material, take a moment to consider the lengths that LEVI’S have gone to in order to protect the environment. The jeans you’re holding will have been made in a local factory, and your purchase will not only be an investment and benefit to your wardrobe, but to the South African economy and the livelihoods of one of the many factory workers situated in Epping, busy making the next batch of jeans to reach the shelves.