January 25th, 2013
From organic cotton to recycled buttons, consumers want to know about the social and environmental impacts of the clothes they buy. What is the clothing industry doing to clean up its carbon footprint? And what is the consumer’s role?
Chip Bergh, president and CEO of Levi Strauss & Co, spoke about the lifecycle of a pair of blue jeans—from the cotton in the fields to the product in the consumer’s closet. For starters, he said, “60% of the energy is actually used once the consumer has the product in their wardrobe, in their closet, so a big chunk of the energy is consumed by the consumer. The second big fun fact is that because we’re so dependent on cotton, about 50% of the water used happens before the product ever winds up in a pair of jeans.” Based on these scientific findings, the company is investing in educating both consumers and suppliers in the opportunities to reduce their environmental impact.
Rick Ridgeway, vice president of environmental affairs at Patagonia, related the company’s efforts to engage with consumers to lower the impact of their products. “Once you make the decision to buy it, we want to encourage our customers to use it as much as they could for as long as they could. We also want to encourage people to clean out their drawers and their closets and take the clothes they no longer use and put them back into circulation.” To make it easier, Patagonia formed a partnership with eBay, allowing consumers to tell a story about their product both on eBay and on Patagonia.com. “Finally we wanted to encourage people to take their clothes that are worn out and bring them back to us and we’ll use the best technology to recycle them. That’s the Common Threads Partnership.” To launch this partnership a year ago, Patagonia took out a full-page ad in the New York Times. “It had a picture of our best-selling jacket and in bold it said Don’t Buy This Jacket,” Ridgeway said. “And under it, was a message about what consumption is doing to our planet and how if we go from seven to nine billion people in the next four years and if the affluence of those people grows 3% per annum compounded, then we’re going to go from our current overreach of using one and a half planets a year to support our human society to five or seven planets. You don’t need an MBA to know that’s bankruptcy.”
Both guests spoke of the tension between trying to reduce the environmental impact of the product while maintaining its performance. According to Bergh, “That tension, that tradeoff, is one of the things that can drive real innovation. I’m a big believer that the best innovation happens when there are constraints, when you’re forced with choice.”
“We feel that we’re in crisis,” Ridgeway said. “That is the word to describe the situation on our planet right now. And the degree to which we can use our company to demonstrate models of how a business can be run successfully and still mange for minimal environmental impact and be a tool for philanthropy and still come in with double digit profit is another area in which we hold our company up as a model.”