Fresh from being hosted by Levi’s at a no-expenses-spared ‘sustainability experience’, Reweti Kohere scratches beneath the surface of the denim icon’s green PR blitz.
It’s well past 10pm on a work night. Waiters are clearing up empty wine glasses and food-smudged linen napkins. Journalists, lifestyle and fashion writers and people of varying influence start to leave the dinner table. For three hours, we’ve wined and dined at a private gathering at Hotel Britomart’s Kingi restaurant in downtown Auckland, hosted by trans-Tasman representatives of global denim clothing giant Levi’s and their local PR agency, Showroom 22. The dinner caps off a 24-hour “sustainability experience” in celebration of World Environment Day a few days later.
A few red wines have left me jovial and grateful as a young guy introduces himself as “Muroki”. The 20-something-year-old, signed to indie-pop star Benee’s Olive label, is much cooler than I was at his age, and I make a mental note to listen to his music. We part ways, he introducing himself further, me farewelling others. Twelve hours earlier, I had sifted and sorted rubbish commonly found washed up on beaches. By 1.30pm, I had interviewed two of Levi’s top brass about designing innovative sustainable products when the underlying infrastructure doesn’t even exist or isn’t up to scratch.
Up until now, I have politely gorged, “feasting style”, on buffalo mozzarella, line-caught fish, fried potato skins, sauteed silverbeet and roasted eggplant. And I’m just about to head to sleep in 100% organic linen sheets on a super king bed in a room that usually demands $399 a night in New Zealand’s first five green star-rated hotel – at no cost to me. Breakfast the next morning, at Kingi again, will be complimentary. My only costs for those 24 hours will be two Uber trips, a “citrus blast” juice from Tank and a hotdog for lunch.
Levi’s 24-hour event may sound extravagant compared to other companies’ attempts at pushing their green credentials, says Michael Daubs. But, says the senior communications and media lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington, the large multinational company has the money to do it, “whereas a smaller company might not have that kind of leverage behind it”.
I had been pitched the “brand activation” experience as a rare opportunity, for the insignificant retail market of Aotearoa, to speak with Levi’s vice president of global product innovation, Paul Dillinger, and one other senior leadership member. My interest was piqued – people from multinational corporations hardly think of New Zealand as a market separate from Australia, and it’s not often New Zealanders get to talk to leading product innovation teams at a time when the fashion industry wants consumers to know it isn’t exploiting the world’s finite resources for never-ending profits. Having been lambasted for how extractive and polluting the fashion sector is, companies are at pains to tell consumers that they actually do care.
Inviting journalists to such showcases is still a crucial part of the fashion industry’s PR pursuit, Daubs says. Journalism as a profession has traditionally been seen as an independent, objective source of information, and lends legitimacy to those it covers. Reporters may be invited to events, or given opportunities to interview people, but that doesn’t mean they have to put pen to paper, he explains. “You could even write a critical story, right? But again, when you’re talking about the expense of a $400-a-night hotel room, for Levi’s it’s a risk worth taking because it doesn’t really, in the end, matter that much to it.”
But journalists are no longer the only arbiters of public opinion. Sympathetic intermediaries, social media platforms and influencers provide a friendly, personable connection, the lecturer says. That creates and drives “brand community”, a group of people who actively advocate or promote a company based on their personal investment and custom in the business. “There’s a demonstrable link between companies who push their green efforts and the willingness of people to spend money on that brand.”
Whether it’s a journalist’s story or a popular influencer’s Instagram Live, consumers should view these practices critically. “There’s a reason why companies like Levi’s are wanting to make visible their practices, or the promotion of their practices – to increase their sales,” Daubs says. “The only reason companies exist is to generate profit. You have to assume, as a consumer, that everything they do is somehow tactically or strategically positioned to generate more profit.”
Levi’s has kept increasing sales for the last four financial quarters, beating analysts’ expectations each time. And yet in the last two years, it has started encouraging customers, through a global “Buy Better, Wear Longer” marketing campaign, to be more intentional about their clothing choices by buying fewer, but more durable, items. The company had a lot of internal debates about whether such a message would reduce sales but “I fundamentally believe that it plays to our strong suit,” Levi Strauss & Co chief executive Chip Bergh said. “It almost defines what the Levi’s brand is all about.”
Another more recent initiative is a circular version of its most iconic product, the 150-year-old 501 jeans, made from a blend of organic cotton and “Circulose”, a dissolved pulp product made by Swedish textile recycler Renewcell completely from recycled textile waste, including worn-out jeans. The textiles are shredded, and buttons, zips and colours removed, before being turned into a slurry. What remains is cellulose, a biodegradable organic polymer that cotton, trees and plants are made out of. The slurry is dried to produce sheets of the Circulose, which are packaged into bales and shipped off to be transformed into fibres that brands use. Renewell claims nothing it adds in the recycling process follows the product or processed water out of the plant; contaminants that accompanied the textiles are removed and treated internally. Levi’s also rendered labels, threads and pocketing details – typically made from synthetic fibres – completely in cotton, to enable easier recycling. Consistent with Levi’s “Water<Less” process, less water is used to dye the fabric and finish the garment.
The snag? Levi’s first-ever circular jean is recyclable “only in communities that have appropriate recycling facilities”. Some countries, such as France, have mandated that clothing and textiles companies must establish their own collection and recycling programmes, therefore shifting the burden of taking care of garments at their end of life to producers. On the other hand, New Zealand doesn’t have this kind of extended producer responsibility policy, although the local fashion and textile industry is in the early stages of proving a pilot stewardship scheme that can eventually work at scale. Some textiles recyclers may exist in Aotearoa, such as Little Yellow Bird and Terracycle Zero Waste Box, but recent research suggests a recycling infrastructure gap of between $2.1bn and $2.6bn exists across all industries, and $900m is needed to fund operations over the next 10 years. A product stewardship levy on textiles brought to market could help, not only in financing recycling facilities but in diverting volumes of textiles from landfill, and reducing emissions.
While there’s been a greater push toward clothes made of linen, cotton and other natural yarns, it’s estimated that polyester, nylon and other synthetic fibres comprise 60% of all clothing and apparel. Nearly 4,700 fabric and textiles items, weighing almost 204kg, have washed up on nearly 300 beaches nationwide since the end of 2018. As recently as July 10, just over 9,000 items, of which 88% were plastic, were picked up in Porirua Harbour, near Paremata Bridge. Overall, nearly 1.7 million litres of rubbish have been removed from beaches, freshwater and stormwater sources in the last four years.
These are just some of the data-driven insights I glean from “Litter Intelligence”, New Zealand’s first and only national litter monitoring programme funded by the Ministry for the Environment and overseen by Sustainable Coastlines. I’m made aware of the programme because Levi’s started its event at the environmental charity’s flagship centre in Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter. The original plan was to pick rubbish up on the Manukau foreshore, near one of the Litter Intelligence sites, but it was scuppered by bad weather. Instead, litter is on hand at the flagship building to sort and categorise as minutely as we “citizen scientists”, dressed in hi-vis vests and wearing sturdy gardening gloves, can manage. Before we get rubbish sorting, Trent Bos, Levi Strauss & Co’s head of marketing for Australia and New Zealand, says he and his colleague are there to learn just as much as we are. Not much shop talk is discussed – people are getting to know each other over cucumber cold-pressed juices and green bowl smoothies, both in glass jars. Unsurprisingly, single-use plastics are discouraged at the venue.
Having escaped buckets of rain, I arrive at Hotel Britomart for the next event and am directed to “The Libraries”, a series of spaces designed for intimate gatherings, private dinners and meetings, such as my interview with Dillinger, Levi’s head of global product innovation, and Jennifer DuBuisson, senior director of sustainability. She hasn’t yet joined the call but Dillinger’s face is beaming in from the US on a huge television screen. He’s a designer whose previous stints include American fashion houses Calvin Klein and DKNY. Now he heads product innovation for a company “that doesn’t mess around with its 160-year-old reputation”.
For 20 minutes, I hear refreshing candour mixed in with unsurprising corporate messaging. Asked what the future of denim might look like, Dillinger responds: “It should be blue, but a healthier blue,” meaning a fair supply chain in which the wellbeing of the participants who make the textile is protected. He adds: “This isn’t the company line, this is my line – I hope the future looks a lot smaller. Fewer, better objects, worn with more care and more love by more people owning less.” DuBuisson gives the company’s not-too-dissimilar perspective: “The goal is to have more people buying less Levi’s,” she says, before plugging its marketing campaign. “We want them to buy better, wear longer.”
Which geographies is Levi’s targeting to make denim that’s a healthier blue? DuBuisson, whose corporate experience comes from heavyweight toy manufacturers The Lego Group and Mattel, responsible for Lego and Barbie respectively, sidesteps the question, saying Levi’s has a broad definition of what meaningful impact looks like – in the US it might be the launch of take-back programmes; in India, China and Bangladesh, it’s about improving supply chain conditions. Dillinger won’t divulge or single out bad performers either: “We wouldn’t spill the tea on exactly which market doesn’t care about sustainability.” And anyway, he’s indifferent to the question of who cares and who doesn’t. “I care,” Dillinger says. “Whether or not it resonates with the consumer, it’s the appropriate job of the designer and the manufacturing company to care.”
I try my luck a different way: are there markets more “amenable” to making legislative and policy changes to speed up reform? This time the designer plays ball – yes, some are doing well, some are not. In the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore, hemp (a quicker-growing, less water-intensive alternative to cotton) is still considered contraband so garments made from it can’t be shipped to such markets, Dillinger explains.
But even progressive countries like Aotearoa can still be regulatory anchors, its lack of product stewardship holding back any real progress on textiles recycling, for example. So how does Levi’s assess bringing Circulose 501 jeans to New Zealand where a recycling infrastructure gap of up to $2.6bn exists across all industries? “Are you asking about a chicken and an egg?” Dillinger responds, before addressing the elephant in the room – in regions where the infrastructure is insufficient, Levi’s tells consumers through its product disclaimers that the jeans can be recycled. Whether or not they are is a missing piece of the puzzle that’s up to others to solve. Product and infrastructure must be developed hand-in-hand, the designer urges. “If we were to hold ourselves back by the patchwork of regional infrastructure, frameworks and contexts, we wouldn’t move forward ever.”
I get to my final question – is Levi’s engaging in a really sophisticated version of greenwashing, of spending more time and energy telling the world it’s green rather than actually doing the green stuff? Levi’s makes products that meet certain durability standards, Dillinger says, and the circular 501 jeans hold up as an original 501 pair does. Whether the product is sophisticated greenwashing might be more relevant in 15 years when it’s ready to go into a recycling bin and transformed into a third-generation garment. “The fact that the system doesn’t exist yet doesn’t excuse me, as a designer, from putting every creative problem-solving energy that I’ve got toward unlocking solutions, knowing that, eventually, the infrastructure will be there and the solution will be necessary,” he says. If the work isn’t done now to prepare for that moment, then a bunch of companies will be confronted by millions of dollars of sunk costs in facilities that aren’t going to do anything. He’s a good salesman, I’ll give him that. “It’s easy to pick it apart and say ‘I can’t recycle these jeans’. Yeah, maybe you can’t – yet. But you don’t need to yet. Talk to me in 12 years and I’ll come pick it up.”
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Pulling the wool over consumers’ eyes is different to companies doing their best by trying something, says Kate Hall, the sustainability advocate and digital creator behind popular social media and consultancy business Ethically Kate. Hall is less inclined to label companies’ efforts as greenwashing if they have set goals across all their business departments, and then worked toward them. On the contrary, if businesses are launching single initiatives disconnected from any wider, deeper set of action, then “absolutely, it’s just a huge, lovely greenwashing stint”, she says.
Overproduction is the fashion industry’s biggest environmental problem, according to Hall. It’s great that brands like Swedish fast-fashion giant H&M spend time and energy designing “conscious” collections, which offer consumers more sustainable, good-quality fashion at cheaper prices. But a better use of their time would be devising solutions to reduce stock levels, while maintaining an economically sustainable business model, she says. As one of the bigger brands out there, Levi’s is one she respects; she sees the company talking about sustainability in a lot of different spaces. “Them launching this Circulose cotton product doesn’t scream greenwashing to me instantly,” Hall says. She takes a breath. “But, you know, we’ll see.”
Back in my hotel room, I emerge from my shower smelling like a herb garden, put on a dressing gown and watch a wall-mounted TV for the first time in years. I window-shop the mini-fridge and see bougie alternatives to the typical Coca-Cola cans and travel-size bottles of Jack Daniel you encounter in hotels, and I scope the 100% compostable slippers, made with wood fibre soles and linen uppers. At a cost of $38, a Hotel Britomart-branded tote bag is available to use for shopping trips I’ll never make. Seven fluffy pillows – too many in my opinion – grace the head of my bed. The sheets feel luxurious.
I don’t sleep too well though. In the morning, I take another herbaceous shower, pack up my bags and wistfully farewell my room. I head down to Kingi for my free breakfast and fuel up on coffee and food, which Levi’s paid at least $399 for me to enjoy. I farewell the hotel staff, dressed in their seaweed green jackets, and order an Uber that costs less than a tenth of the room I slept in. I may have written a story, a risk that Levi’s calculated was worth taking. And I may have rarely heard about the label’s sustainability efforts as I was wined and dined, hosted and accommodated. But at the end of the day, I’m not the one trying to look good.