In Levi's We Trust

We don’t trust the people we do business with from. They make us all into billboards whether we like it or not. These are problems of our post-modern world that bother me, but for some reason they bother me far less than businesses who behave in a manner that is hypocritical. This is especially true for brands with the resources to actually do something about it.

Modern Industry, for example, does not currently have the resources to develop proprietary fabrics. We can work with manufacturers to customize what they are already making, but we can’t start from scratch. A company like Levi’s, on the other hand, can.

Last month Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh made the rounds of the blogosphere after comments he made during a discussion on fashion and sustainability at Fortune's Brainstorm Green conference. Most notably, he urged consumers not to wash their jeans in order to save water and energy. He went so far as to say his jeans had “yet to see a washing machine” in the past year. On the surface this is admirable. This is also not the the most hyperbolic statement he made at the conference. I’m including the next quote solely because it is too good to pass up.

"We are the ultimate in sustainable apparel," Bergh said. "If you buy [our jeans] they will last a lot longer than most people's waistlines will."

Levi’s have taken great strides recently to create more environmentally friendly products. At the conference Levi’s displayed their new “Wellthread” line of products that are made with fabrics that are easier to recycle and use less energy and water to create. Their “Waterless” line of denim uses significantly less water to produce when compared to traditional denim. All of this is great.

Where I have a problem... and find hypocrisy... is the lack of commitment to this standard. Levis has a gigantic product line. “Waterless” and “Wellthread” products make up only a small part of this line. If Levi’s really believed in these principles, they would discontinue the use of other, more harmful, fabrics wherever possible. But they don’t. If you go to buy a pair of 501s from the Levi’s website, you will see a “Waterless” option directly next to a standard variety.

Why, if Levi’s is really committed to building sustainable, environmentally friendly products, is this the case? (Let’s not even get into their use of Nanosphere technology, which relies on fluorochemicals, in their “Commuter” series.) There is only one reason I can think of: Money. It appears that these altruistic initiatives are not really about changing the world for the better. The are intended to do one thing, make money from a consumer who cares about these ideas.

If you really cared about these ideas, wouldn’t you immediately discontinue the use of every other fabric? Even if it may hurt your bottom line? Principles are hard to stand by. It’s far easier to do what is convenient. And that’s what Levi’s is doing here. They are finding a convenient way to make more money.

I may be wrong about this. Someone at Levi’s may be pushing these initiatives for the right reasons. He or she may truly believe in them. Obviously, the company does not... At least, not enough to fundamentally change the way they do business. Until they stop doing the things that they say are bad/worse, these initiatives will remain hollow marketing ploys. PR stunts. If you really believe in something, then you wouldn’t do the opposite. It’s as simple as that.

The materials Levi’s uses are not the issue here. Hell, if Modern Industry were to start making jeans we would almost certainly use Cone Mills Denim. From what I can tell, Cone Mills does not take all possible steps to ensure that the use a little water as possible in the creation of their product. They do, however make awesome fabric.

I am not suggesting Levi’s is the only guilty party here. This is the typical way companies behave, especially big ones. Even when they do get caught in the act, like Subway’s recent bread fiasco or GM’s faulty ignition switches, they just deny they are doing anything wrong. They use every tactic possible to avoid the admission of fault. They only stand by their principles when it means they can make money. If they get in the way of that singular goal, then fuck it. They throw the values out the window.

Increasingly, we live in a world void of trust. We don’t trust the companies that serve our society. We don’t trust each other. We don’t trust seemingly indisputable facts. Why would we trust when we know everyone is just lying to us to get what they want?

I would like to add one final note here. I do not want or expect a company... or a person... to be static in their principles or beliefs. I firmly believe that principles should be evolutionary. We should be constantly challenging ourselves to have a better understanding of our world. As we learn, our values should change based on that new information.
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