Originally created as a response to the Rana Plaza disaster, the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord instituted legal mechanisms to ensure workplace safety across Bangladesh’s Ready Made Garment (RMG) industry. The distinguishing efficacy of the recently renamed International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry is three-fold, and establishes the following principles:

  • Transparency over site inspections and enforcement of repair is standardized under the Accord. Brand signatories enter into a standardized, legally binding contract to guarantee social and legal accountability over supply chains, rather than resign standards to a voluntary basis.
  • Accountability does not start and end with a brand signatory. An independent secretariat enforces the legally binding contract on brands.
  • The Accord requires the intent of expanding to other countries, beyond Bangladesh.

The Accord, which was initially implemented in the direct aftermath of Rana Plaza, was renewed again in 2021, with the events of the pandemic exacerbating the necessity for workers rights and protections. Although a significant number of brands (H&M and Inditex, among others) have committed to all three principles of the Bangladesh Accord, Levi Strauss & Co. lags behind its peers, as one of the few remaining major brands that has yet to sign the Accord.

So what’s keeping Levi’s from signing onto the two-year binding agreement?

Levi’s Opposition to the Accord, Past and Present

Levi’s poses a paradox of corporate social responsibility. Claiming commitment to ethical supply chains without signing onto industry leading initiatives resembles lip-service in a world where complacence is a matter of life and death.

Kris Marubio, spokesperson for Levi’s, said: “We’re not signing the new Accord because we already follow guidelines outlined in it. We support industry-wide initiatives, such as those put forth by the International Labour Organization (ILO). Our policies and practices are so strict that we only use 13 factories in Bangladesh.” Regardless of this statement’s validity, the Accord is not mutually exclusive from ILO measures, and Levi’s refusal to sign onto the Accord prevents a fully ethical supply chain in two key ways:

1) ILO measures are voluntary and lack legally enforceable mechanics. The Accord is an independent and legally enforceable contract, holding brands accountable, rather than relying on self-reporting and voluntary obligations as ILO measures do. By refusing to sign onto the Accord, Levi’s is giving itself an out — consistent with its history of expressing intent with minimal concrete action.

2) Levi’s is restricting conversations of ethical supply chains to Bangladesh. A major expansion of the Accord allows for application into other large supplier countries like Pakistan, Vietnam and Cambodia — all countries that have increasingly experienced labor violations in their garment supply chains. In fact, Levi’s has claimed supply chain diversification as a sole strategy for keeping costs low. While that isn’t an inherently bad practice, Levi’s has been centering production in countries with little labor regulation and worker protections to keep wage costs unethically low. As of 2020, Levi’s reported 50% of their South Asian factories and 57% of their North Asian factories had experienced health and safety issues. Not signing onto the Accord limits Levi’s responsibility to act on enforcing corrective measures in these factories.

Levi’s refusal to sign the Accord, while simultaneously seeking to promote a platform of corporate social responsibility, leaves reasonable room for skepticism of the brand’s goals of ensuring worker well-being.

As of 2019, the company reported continued work in 19 Bangladesh garment factories, despite claims of reduced production in the country. Reporting by the Clean Clothes Campaign uncovered Levi’s efforts to often tie their reputation to other actors that have committed to the call of the Bangladesh Accord, stating: “In many other factories Levi’s is free-riding on the efforts of Accord signatories such as Uniqlo, Next, Varner, G-Star and Sainsbury’s, who through their signature under the Accord committed to ensure that safety renovations are financially possible in the factories that they source from.” 

Levi’s refusal to sign the Accord, while simultaneously seeking to promote a platform of corporate social responsibility, leaves reasonable room for skepticism of the brand’s goals of ensuring worker well-being.

A Timeline of Levi’s Ethical Production Attempts

Levi Strauss & Co. has been experimenting with ethical sourcing models for nearly two decades.

Nearly three decades ago, as a response to 1992 reports of garment workers in Saipan producing Levi’s garments in barracks, the brand terminated contracts with 30 of its 600 suppliers in China, additionally setting correction targets for 150 of its suppliers in the region. The brand expanded its commitments in 1993, when it publicly announced its decision to pull out operations from China, citing “pervasive human rights violations” in the country — a milestone decision for what was then the emerging fast fashion industry. Although at the time Chinese manufacturers only comprised around 2% of the Levi’s total manufacturing, the company’s firm line on ethical sourcing was met with admiration on the part of the human rights community. Rather unfortunate, however, is the fact that the brand’s public outcry of protecting labour rights proved impermanent.

Levi's Accord

Five years after the brand denounced Chinese sourcing chains, it reinstated its operations in the country. David Love, the executive vice president of Levi’s at the time, said in regards to the company’s reversal of its 1993 hard-line stance: “We went back when China was a low-cost provider…We wanted to capitalize on that.” At the time, the company reported a commitment to social responsibility, promising to pursue only ethical suppliers in the Chinese market, despite a general consensus by human rights organizations of the same ethical issues persisting within Chinese supply chains.

Levi’s continued to shift between prioritizing people and prioritizing profits throughout the 90s, and indeed, well into the 2000s.

In 2004, Levi’s succeeded in dismissing a class action lawsuit filed by Saipan garment workers that brought forth “​​unfair business practices, involuntary servitude, and criminal peonage” perpetuated by 26 fashion and apparel brands operating in the Chinese island. Levi’s argued against its obligation settlement citing internal reports that Levi’s clothing made in Saipan at the time — prior to 2000 — was done in an ethical manner, with factories that had been compliant with Levi’s supplier code of conduct. Saipan garment workers dropped Levi’s from the suit to avoid a delayed or denied settlement, despite statements from Levi’s executives admitting to bad practices. LA Times reported that Philip Marineau, Levi’s President and CEO, had stated as the reason behind subcontracting denim manufacturing: “The apparel industry is chasing low-cost labor.”

The corporate decision to move towards an unethical and objectively illegal wage has haunted Levi’s reputation of ethicality throughout the brand’s history.

The corporate decision to move towards an unethical and objectively illegal wage has haunted Levi’s reputation of ethicality throughout the brand’s history. Despite working with the ILO/IFC’s Better work program since 2005 (and publicly disclosing its entire supply chain), Levi’s ethical supply rating dropped in 2007, in part due to an inadequate address of ensuring a living wage. The brand was consequently moved from the Ethical Trading Initiatives, notably after defending that they had not wanted to commit to something they could not deliver.

Granted, Levi’s hasn’t been completely idle in the industry. Post Rana Plaza, Levi’s assumed some corporate responsibility for unethical supply chains. As a part of the ILO/IFC’s Better work program in Bangladesh, the company engaged in a sort of stakeholder assessment tool, implementing worker well-being surveys as a part of supplier transactions. As a part of its response, Terms of Engagement (TOE) were implemented “to every factory, subcontractor, licensee, agent or affiliate that manufactures or finished products for LS&Co., including owned-and-operated factories,” assigning rankings based on overall performance in adhering to supplier codes of conduct, past record of compliance, and response times to corrective action plans. However, while audits of supply chains are completed by the ILO’s Better Work program, as of 2021, those manufacturing sites only account for 10% of Levi’s Tier 1 suppliers.

It’s clear that Levi’s commitment to ethical sourcing has a definite limit.

As of 2021, the brand is moving more in the direction of adopting Social and Labor Convergence Program codes (SLCP). Rather than hold brands accountable for issues within its supply chains, this program would utilize “Converged Assessment Framework” to theoretically implement industry wide ethical production measures — a proposed solution to audit fatigue. For now, the SLCP is not in function in countries where suppliers are located, although the brand is looking to continue using the TOE approach for its smaller suppliers.

Kalpona Akter, president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF) and founder of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity (BCWS) has stated, “Brands’ self regulation has never saved our workers’ lives.”

This shift in the brand’s supply chain strategy comes at a time of international reckoning of garment worker protections. In the attempt to address “audit fatigue” and position itself into conducting a “comprehensive” supply chain overview, Levi’s is attempting to assert its independence as a corporation, ignoring standardized frameworks that are built to scale up — frameworks that would exist within a larger landscape of the fashion industry, rather than solely in an insularly private space. As Kalpona Akter, president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF) and founder of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity (BCWS) has stated, “Brands’ self regulation has never saved our workers’ lives.”

In theory, Levi’s might be employing a  strategy of some success to appease shareholders, but the reality of business operations suggests that the brand’s garment workers are not exclusively producing for just Levi’s. Levi’s exists within a tangled web of fast fashion brands, all utilizing the same workforce — cutting costs to exploit the same workforce — to secure a market advantage by selling cheap. It is impossible for Levi’s to extricate themselves from a wider industry lens, and hide behind surface level private “solutions.”

Levi's Accord

Solutions to address supply chain responsibility require a race to the top, with each brand complying to a standardized set of rules in order to prevent an unethical market advantage at the expense of the garment worker. This means long-term, binding contracts — a hallmark of the Bangladesh Accord, and notably, a lacking element of Levi’s SLCP and TOE approaches.

Why Levi’s Current Approach to Ethical Sourcing Isn’t Enough

Levi’s excels when it comes to transparency of its supply chain. But it isn’t enough. The brand fails to acknowledge its role outside its microcosm of direct production, directly resulting in a series of short-term, retroactive fixes, as opposed to a long-term contractual binding agreement.

Under Levi’s 2018 policy in Bangladesh, if a factory does not comply with supplier codes of conduct, it merely sees a reduced volume of orders, rather than any address of ensuring workers rights and safety — a problem that was magnified in 2020, during which the impact glossing over wage theft and supply chain issues was a matter of life and death during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The massive cancellation of 2020 orders by the larger fast fashion industry violated of international wage policies, eliciting the #PayUp movement to demand workers were compensated for completed work. Among the brands whose global supply chains were implicated in wage delays or wage theft, Levi’s ranked as less severe, with the brand committing and paying back delayed wages on the terms of the original contract. However, in the same breath, the brand has not committed to the Severance Guarantee Fund, which would donate 1% of net sales (which in 2020 amounted to a total $27 million profit) — instead donating to US AID’s Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which has yet to provide any monetary aid to communities in Asia whose garment workers have been affected by the pandemic.

Without any substantial aid to those who were deemed an essential workforce on the basis of their ability to produce PPE, can Levi’s truly say that they are committed to worker well being?

Add onto this the fact that the brand has not yet signed onto the 2021 renewal and expansion of International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, and it’s difficult to believe the brand is truly attempting to put into practice any of the ethos it claims to represent.

It’s a question that seems almost existential for Levi’s. In 2016, the brand’s Vice President of Sustainability, Michael Kobori stated as a part of the brand’s Worker Well Being initiative: “Listening to workers first is a critical component to the success of Worker Well-being…Especially as a company that operates in multiple countries. The needs of workers in Sri Lanka may be vastly different than those in Mexico. We want to ensure that the programs we are supporting are valuable. There is no one-size-fits-all in our supply chain.”

Well-intentioned words, but for a company moving to evaluate supply chains unilaterally on the basis of a “Converged Assessment Framework,” it remains consistent with the same stagnant tone as the rest of Levi’s internal ethical policies. Add onto this the fact that the brand has not yet signed onto the 2021 renewal and expansion of International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, and it’s difficult to believe the brand is truly attempting to put into practice any of the ethos it claims to represent.

Actionably Ensuring Worker Wellbeing: The Bangladesh Accord

The International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry lifts garment worker voices and actively works toward worker safety beyond a public relations perspective — and Levi’s has never been a signatory on it.

In a unifying moment from brands and worker unions, the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord created a three-tiered system of inspection, remediation, and safety training — proving massively effective in both the extent of manufacturing sites covered, as well as factory repair rates, which rounded to 83% as of 2018. The International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry addresses every level of supply chain ethicality through the introduction of legally enforceable accountability measures.

To truly protect garment workers, it is imperative that Levi’s shift business operations towards operating on long term, binding contracts — an effort which begins with signing the Accord.

In comparison to Levi’s supply chain management approach — which is purely voluntary, and offers minimal factory coverage — the Accord is expansive, going above and beyond a first initial step of transparency. As of 2018, the Accord covered more than two million workers in Bangladesh, and more than 1,600 manufacturing sites. Inspections identified 118,500 fire hazards within 1,687 factories. All this to say, the Accord works.

It provides an action-oriented and standardized method to achieve Levi’s aspirations of ensuring worker wellness across supply chains. So why won’t Levi’s sign onto the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry? And why hasn’t it signed onto either of the previous two renditions of the Accord?

Transparency is merely a first step. To truly protect garment workers, it is imperative that Levi’s shift business operations towards operating on long term, binding contracts — an effort which begins with signing the Accord.

Related Stories

Join the Conversation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

We send out once-a-month updates packed with free sustainability resources, information on our advocacy campaigns, and the latest ethical fashion news.

Welcome Remaker! You’re now part of the movement.