Imagine: a fashion website full of models that never existed. Levi Strauss & Co recently decided to jump on the artificial intelligence bandwagon with its latest foray into technology: “diverse” AI models. The brand’s press release on March 22, 2023, argued in favor of a new partnership with Amsterdam-based “digital fashion studio” Lalaland.ai, claiming it would help Levi’s to “[increase] the number and diversity of our models for our products in a sustainable way.” Immediately customers, activists, and writers alike pushed back on the fashion giant asking why digitization was needed in order to achieve diverse representation. Less than a week later the Unzipped Staff released an amended statement, attempting to further clarify the brand’s baffling decision. Levi’s was once at the forefront of innovation within the fashion industry in many ways; however, recently the brand has been falling short where it really counts. So, what exactly happened?
Taking the Easy Way Out
Levi’s original statement carried out claims that the “body-inclusive avatars” would not only create diversity within its brand images, but be a “sustainable way” to do so as well. While the company maintained that it would still be hiring “a wider range of human models,” the fashion empire asserted that today’s “industry standards for a photoshoot will generally be limited to one or two models per product,” and Lalaland.ai’s technology would bring about widespread diversity much more quickly.
“So who’s going to tell [Levi’s] that it can develop a diversity and inclusion strategy by just…hiring and paying actual models of different races and body types?”
While this may be true in terms of speed, the argument around sustainability seems flimsy at best. Would the environmental impact of in-person photo shoots really be so great with more models? There are a million more ways in which Levi’s could reduce its environmental impact which would have a greater overall effect than reducing talent at photoshoots. For instance, Remake has found Levi’s to be increasing its total carbon emissions when it comes to the company’s production supply chain. Simply refusing to use humans of diverse skin color, body type and size under the guise of “sustainability” seems to be a way to cover up the truth: the retail giant actually doesn’t want to use their excessive funds on this endeavor.
“So who’s going to tell this multibillion-dollar company that it can develop a diversity and inclusion strategy by just… hiring and paying actual models of different races and body types?” The Cut’s Tariro Mzezewa wrote dryly in response to Levi’s initial announcement. Each argument the brand makes seems to imply that a diverse range of models is so hard to find, not unlike the age-old argument made by Hollywood execs for their lack of diverse casting. This has been proven wrong time and time again; there are countless individuals of all skin colors, body shapes, and sizes who are professional models, actors, and artists aching to be paid fairly for this kind of work.
Changing the Face of Fashion
In an industry that has had a history of unrealistic beauty standards, Levi’s’ potential use of AI models could push us away from this relatively new celebration of diversity in fashion.
Starting in 2019, we began to see the introduction of “virtual influencers.” These influencers, constructed using computer graphics and fictionalized personalities, rose to popularity on social media sites like Instagram. They were designed to be the ultimate unattainable influencer. The characters, designed to have and mimic human characteristics with unique personalities and quirks, regularly interacted with their followers, other content creators, and celebrities, while also posting a plethora of new content. One of the most notable virtual influencers, Miquela, has even been featured in a Calvin Klein campaign with model Bella Hadid and also hosted her own talk show “Ask a Robot.” Many of these virtual influencers resemble thin, often white or pale, teen girls who document their lives to thousands, if not millions, of followers. Like many of the top influencers on all social media platforms, the most popular virtual influencers fail to showcase variety as the content pushed by these sites’ algorithms have been known not to feature the diversity often seen in reality.
The characters, designed to have and mimic human characteristics with unique personalities and quirks, regularly interact with their followers, other content creators, and celebrities
While CGI-made fictional humans often look like animations, the technology used to create such these influencers has greatly evolved. Since the Spring 2023, we’ve begun to see more AI integration into our daily lives, and often it’s less distinguishable between fact and fiction.
Currently, Miquela has 2.8 million followers on Instagram, and just partied with Rosalía at the Coachella Music Festival in California.
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While this integration of AI and “fake humans” into our media and marketing isn’t new, one has to wonder if opportunities are being taken away from others to make room for these digital presences. Fashion has increasingly become more automated, which begs the question: will Levi’s’ usage of AI software push us further over the edge of technological reliance? And if so, how far are we willing to fall? Manufacturers, designers, models and retail workers already face job instability in the fashion industry.
In January 2023, Vogue Business reported that VF Corp, the parent company of Vans, Supreme and The North Face, had announced plans to terminate 600 positions, including 300 roles that were already vacant, to accommodate for inflation and industry trends. This followed reports of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein owner PVH Corp laying off 10 percent of employees, the personal styling platform Stitch Fix letting go of approximately 20 percent of its workforce, and the US fashion retailer Everlane axing 17 percent of head office positions, plus some of its store staff. These lay offs came as growing job cuts have been made around the world in industries such as tech, retail and hospitality.
Lying Through False Teeth
Levi’s history of neglect extends to various facets of the brand’s operations.
Levi’s insists it is a brand centered around sustainability and equity, but this foray into AI is on the business’s latest failed at proving this to be true. For years the fashion giant has ignored the fact that its own garment workers are operating in unsafe conditions while also treating its corporate employees as disposable. In 2020, USA Today reported that Levi’s was “cutting about 15% of its corporate workforce worldwide because of a sharp decrease in sales due to the coronavirus pandemic [..]” Instead of, say, cutting executive salaries or pausing unnecessary expenses for those in power, the conglomerate decided it would sacrifice 700 office jobs instead, declaring that this move would “save the San Francisco-based jeans maker about $100 million a year.”
It makes one wonder what Levi’s is doing with all that money saved.
For over thirty years, major brands including Levi’s have used voluntary codes of conduct and privately-funded social audits of their factories to “prove” that they are sourcing their products responsibly — and yet, these efforts have completely failed to keep workers safe, leaving garment workers vulnerable to horrific workplace accidents.
“Our main problem is that workers do not have proper safety. Workers at the factory suffer from extreme heat but are denied treatment from the factory’s doctor.”
In fact, ten years after the Rana Plaza factory collapse that killed 1,138 garment workers sewing in the building, the company has still not signed on to the International or Pakistan Accords — two life-saving, binding agreements that would ensure factory safety and provide a channel for worker concerns.
Levi’s’ claims of caring for the planet and its people have proven to be empty.
According to the brand’s own most recent Sustainability Report, 57% of Levi’s Tier 1 facilities that were assessed and 55% of Tier 2 facilities had health and safety violations. These violations have included the consistent presence of toxic gas which resulted in four deaths at a factory Levi’s operates out of in late 2022. Levi’s doesn’t seem to care that its negligence has cost these four individuals their lives, not does it seem concerned about the potential of future health and safety risks amongst its garment workers.
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In video testimony Remake received and later reported on in September 2022, Levi’s workers in Pakistan claimed to experience forced overtime, no breaks, heat exhaustion, verbal harassment, and a lack of clean bathroom facilities, cold water and medical treatment. One female Levi’s worker in Bangladesh stated, “Our main problem is that workers do not have proper safety. Workers at the factory suffer from extreme heat but are denied treatment from the factory’s doctor. Our production manager does not allow us to seek medical treatment…Sometimes they beat us and often use abusive words towards us. When workers make even a tiny mistake, management punishes us immediately. Us workers are abused but never get justice.”
Double Standards Since 2013
Amidst all of Levi’s hollow claims and mistreatment of workers, one fatal flaw stands out among the rest, and that is its refusal to sign the International Accord. Recently, the International Accord expanded to include supply chains in Pakistan. With that expansion, the initiative to get brands to sign continues to grow. Levi’s is a long standing perpetrator of bad practices and garment worker neglect. Levi’s currently operates within at least 20 suppliers in Pakistan, as well as a multitude of factories in Bangladesh, though the brands has still not signed either of the Accords.
Levi’s has argued that its own codes of conduct adhere to guidelines from esteemed International Labour Organization. These guidelines include high standards for labor inspection, collective bargaining, maternity protection and more. While the ILO has respectable guidelines, the Accord differs greatly because it is legally-binding. It is a legal contract between brands and trade unions which seeks to end building and fire safety-related issues in Bangladeshi and Pakistani garment factories in an effort to prevent further incidents like Rana Plaza.
It’s still unclear how Levi’s’ venture into AI technology will pan out. However, if nothing else, it seems to be yet one more inauthentic move on the brand’s part to claim concern for the people of this planet without really doing anything actionable to aid them, much like the company’s lack of signature on the International and Pakistan Accords.