From Washing Jeans to Caring for the Planet

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In my last post, I wrote about a survey comparing public perception of a firm's greenness and their rated performance toward climate change. Of the nearly 100 companies in the survey in all sectors the public perception leader was Levi Strauss with a score of 86 out of 100, compared to their "actual" rating of 58. To put this into perspective, Liz Claiborne got a 42 in the perception and only a 7 in actual performance. As happens so often, I came across another article about Levi Strauss at about the same time. Green Design had posted excerpts from a speech by John Anderson, Levi Strauss CEO, given at the Haas School of Business. His comments are consistent with the score they got in the survey. The key part of the excerpt was that, after performing a life cycle analysis, the company discovered that the largest impact over the life cycle of a pair of Levis comes from keeping the pants clean. He said:
But the real lesson of the lifecycle study is that some of the biggest sustainability impacts have nothing to do with processing denim, sewing jeans or shipping clothes.
They should not have been terribly surprised as this is the case for many products in daily use. The largest environmental impacts from transportation vehicles come in running or driving them. Levis response is a new care tag sewn into garment with cleaning instructions. Anderson reported that
We recently [January 2010] launched an exciting new partnership with Goodwill -- A Care Tag for Our Planet -- to spread the word with consumers that caring for their clothes can help care for the planet. . . . I don't see why a business, looking far beyond its own boundaries, can't aspire to change the way people around the world think. We want to be part of that transformation. It is one of the most energizing activities we can do.
The tag, shown in the photo, instructs the owner to wash the garment in cold water and to take it to Goodwill when it is time for a new pair. Judging from the tattered condition of old jeans I so frequently see on the street, I'm not so sure that even Goodwill will be able to recycle them. I certainly wish the company success in its new endeavor. The acts that they encourage their customers to undertake will help in reducing unsustainability. But I do wonder about Anderson's hope that they can change the way "people around the world think." He knows that something different is happening,
To me, sustainability has become the touchstone of the entire discussion about the relationship between business and the society it serves.
Anderson, like virtually all business executives, has yet to learn that reducing unsustainability is not equivalent to creating sustainability. Levis has taken a key first step toward changing values by making caring for the planet explicit on the label. Success will depend on how many people read the label. Given the long-standing washing practices of simply adding jeans to the rest of the colored clothes, or after many washings, to the whites, I wonder how many people will actually read the care tag. Perhaps Levis and Goodwill will advertise the program widely. To be really effective people have to be explicitly directed to the new tag. If a campaign is done right, it will have the potential to, as Anderson intends, change thinking about the meaning of caring beyond some mechanical act like clothes washing, but sustainability will take more than a care tag.
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