Originally worn by miners as a form of workwear, blue jeans have evolved beyond their modest beginnings. Not only have they transformed into one of the most popular fashion staples, they have also become an international symbol of independence and freedom. The demand for jeans wear is on the rise, and the market is forecasted to be worth $87.4 billion U.S. dollar market in 2027. And who can talk about denim jeans without mentioning Levi’s? As the patented inventor of these indigo classics, this San Francisco-based brand has remained an unwavering mainstay in popular culture since the 1800s. But is Levi’s sustainable?
Despite being one of the oldest denim companies in existence, Levi’s has a not-so-pretty history of climate pollution and labor injustices. The process of producing jeans is highly water-, cotton-, and labor-intensive, requiring 3,781 liters of water over the course of its life cycle and involves the use of toxic chemicals to create the signature indigo color. While these garments are loved for their versatility and variety of color washes, there’s no denying that they have a detrimental impact on the environment and are the end product of an industry that is often anything but valuing of its workers.
Now one of the largest apparel brands in the world, Levi’s has the clout and responsibility to lead the implementation of lasting changes within the industry to improve sustainable practices and ethical labor conditions. Even though the brand has made substantial progress by incorporating water-saving processes and pledging ambitious carbon-reduction targets, it remains quiet on the labor justice and human rights front. To date, Levi’s has not signed onto the International Accord, a life-saving agreement that ensures better safeties for the men and women sewing their jeans.
After the devastating Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, which resulted in the death of 1,321 garment workers, the historical Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety was created to prevent similar tragedies from happening again. The International Accord, a renewal and expansion of the original agreement, is critical in protecting the health and safety of the millions of workers who make up the backbone of the fashion industry.
Since the Accord was revitalized in August 2021, it has garnered support from a robust list of well-known brands, including adidas, American Eagle, ASOS, Esprit, H&M, Inditex (Zara), Mango, Marks & Spencer, Next, Primark, Puma, PVH (Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger) and UNIQLO. However, there remain some powerful players, like Levi’s, that have refused to sign onto the agreement.
Is Levi’s Sustainable?
These days, a vast majority of Levi’s jeans are now made overseas. The big brand works withs dozens of factories in Bangladesh. Even though Levi’s has not committed to the International Accord, the brand work with factories which are audited and certified to be safe under the agreement, essentially allowing them to be a free rider on the agreement without providing any funding to the cause.
We know from Rana Plaza that brand-led safety programs are absolutely lethal, costing garment workers life and limb. The Accord changed that paradigm, dramatically improving safety for garment workers in Bangladesh because of its binding nature. With every passing day, Levi’s is free-riding off the Accord and undermining that progress…
Instead of adhering to the highest standards for workplace safety and brand accountability endorsed by over 170 companies, Levi’s relies on self-regulated practices. A Levi’s spokesperson has responded to the call to action stating: “We believe our current programs and practices provide the same level of verifiable worker protections and uphold our responsibility to ensure a safe workplace.”
However, it’s apparent from fashion’s history that brand efforts aren’t nearly enough when it comes to keeping workers safe. Elizabeth Cline, Remake’s Directory of Advocacy and Policy, elaborated on this sentiment when asked about Levi’s response: “We know from Rana Plaza that brand-led safety programs are absolutely lethal, costing garment workers life and limb. The Accord changed that paradigm, dramatically improving safety for garment workers in Bangladesh because of its binding nature. With every passing day, Levi’s is free-riding off the Accord and undermining that progress, as they produce clothing in Accord factories without being a contributing member to the Accord. Levi’s uses Accord factories precisely because they are the safest, while undermining the power of the Accord.”
Many brands, not unlike Levi’s, have evaluation matrices and social compliance audits in place. Yet, they are often treated as checkboxes, rather than effective tools to drive real changes at the factory level. According to a research article from Cornell University, the private regulation of labor standards has not contributed to actual compliance nor improvements in working conditions in the supply chain. In addition, the information collected by the company auditors were often found to be unreliable. Without a neutral party and a consistent set of standards to hold the brands accountable, they are left to their own devices to determine how ethical standards will trickle down to the factory floor.
We are urging Levi’s to acknowledge do its part to help moderate the systemic power imbalance that allows fashion companies to evade accountability in instances when the safety of their garment workers has been compromised.
On the Open Apparel Registry (OAR), the denim giant only lists its Tier 1 and 2 suppliers, compared with a brand like MUD Jeans, which lists up to its Tier 4 from raw materials stage to final garment. According to Levi’s site, its “Worker Well-being Initiative” offers training that promotes financial literacy and family wellness, but there is no tangible commitment or financial contributions to ensure individuals and their families can sustain a living wage and access basic living necessities. While these are well-intended initiatives and steps towards increased transparency, they do not guarantee the garment workers’ fundamental rights to a safe workplace and financial security. Ultimately, Levi’s places their workers’ lives at risk every day.
“We are urging Levi’s to acknowledge do its part to help moderate the systemic power imbalance that allows fashion companies to evade accountability in instances when the safety of their garment workers has been compromised,” said Becca Coughlan, Transparency Manager at Remake. “Creating lasting change in the industry will require collaboration on all fronts. We are simply asking Levi’s to put aside its exceptionalist attitude for the sake of the whole, so that all workers, sewing for all brands in all factories, are awarded the same rights and protections.”
ALTERNATIVES TO LEVI’S JEANS
If you are looking for a pair of jeans, browsing resale platforms or buying second-hand are the most ideal options when it comes to the environment. However, there are some ethical alternatives to Levi’s if you’re looking to purchase new. Here are the four denim brands that scored the highest on the 2021 Remake Fashion Accountability Report.
This sustainable jeans brand is defining a new standard by eliminating all conventionally grown cotton from its collections and using only certified organic cotton, recycled cotton and Tencel, including deadstock fabric that helps to reduce carbon emission. Boyish Jeans works primarily with plant-based dyes and indigo with 80% less sulfates, and the brand source textiles that are OEKO-TEXT Standard 100-approved, so its products are safe for the environment and humans.
This small but mighty company achieves transparency in its supply chain by working with partners within small geographic regions of Turkey, Thailand and California. Not only does it only select factories that pay over minimum wage, the brand also contributes funds to cover severances and outstanding wages.
The Netherlands-based brand is the world’s “first circular denim brand.” MUD Jeans has been leasing jeans to their customers since 2013 and offers free repairs within the first year of purchase.
MUD jeans are comprised of approximately 60-70% GOTS certified organic cotton and up to 40% post-consumer recycled cotton. The brand works exclusively with a factory that specializes in cutting-edge water-efficient and non-toxic dye methods. A carbon-neutral company since its inception, MUD jeans is one of the only brands that reports on its total carbon emissions every year.
Through the GOTS certified program, its cotton farmers are paid fair wages.
Nudie Jeans has been in the sustainable jeans business since 2001, opting for only organic, Fairtrade or recycled cotton in its denim. The brand embraces the circular model by providing repair and recycling programs while incorporating used materials into new products.
Through its living wage program, Nudie Jeans covers its share of living wages to employees in all stages throughout its entire Indian supply chain and one Turkish main supplier.
Known for its cheeky taglines, Reformation has long been a sustainable fashion darling. On top of utilizing deadstock and a mix of recycled cotton, organic cotton and Tencel in its denim, the brand also uses Good Earth Cotton, grown with regenerative and climate-positive practices.
Reformation places transparency at the forefront by incorporating the innovative fabric lifetime tracking system, FibreTrace®. The brand publicly discloses its supplier information on the Open Apparel Registry and partners with Climate Neutral to measure their annual carbon emissions.
With 14 local factories in Los Angeles, Reformation was an avid supporter of the Garment Worker Protection Act and continues to work towards providing living wages for its Reformation team in the US.
Instead of waiting on Levi’s to make more impactful and concrete actions, I am betting my money on other pioneering brands, such as Nudie Jeans and MUD Jeans. And our efforts don’t have to end at the shopping cart. As concerned consumers and activists, we can use our voice to demand action from Levi’s to put its practices where its promises are. Send an auto-generated email today to Levi’s executives and ask them to sign on to the International Accord or publicly-tag @Levis on social media and call on the brand to protect the safety and livelihoods of its workers on the factory floors. Let’s move the needle on responsible labor practices in the garment industry.