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Levi Strauss Foundation exec director on importance of backing social change

By Huw Hughes


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American fashion company Levi Strauss & Co., best known as a pioneering figure in the denim industry for the past 166 years, has also made a name for itself since its founding as a business with social responsibility and corporate philanthropy at its core. The Levi Strauss Foundation is a perfect example of that.

Founded in 1952, the foundation is an arm of the company receiving funding from Levi Strauss & Co. with a mandate to operate in the places where the company has a business presence. With an annual grant of around 8.5 million dollars, the foundation focuses primarily on three areas:

Raising awareness and confronting stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS: The foundation has invested more than 76 million dollars in its global response since 1983.

Working on advancing the rights and well-being of its workers: The foundation has invested 10 million dollars since 1997 in community organisations in key Levi Strauss & Co. sourcing locations, and has spent 5.5 million dollars since 2011 to pilot, scale and measure the impact of its Worker-Wellbeing Programme (WWB).

Pioneering social justice: The foundation has established a one million dollar Rapid Response Fund to support the most vulnerable communities, including immigrants, refugees, the transgender community and ethnic and religious minorities.

Since it was founded, the foundation has provided around 330 million dollars to its causes.

Daniel Lee is the executive director of the foundation and for the past 11 years has been at its forefront. He is also currently a board member on the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy and was a founding board member of the Massachusetts Asian AIDS Prevention Project. FashionUnited spoke to Lee about his time at the Levi Strauss Foundation, the importance of International Refugee Day, which took place on 20 June, and the need for companies to back social change.

Why is World Refugee Day so important for Levi Strauss & Co. and the wider fashion industry as a whole?

At Levi Strauss & Co. we’ve have had a long standing focus on those who are most marginalised in society and I think that this global refugee crisis has really activated the empathy and the activism of our own employees, especially here in the Europe region.

For us it really comes down to our values. We were founded by a refugee: Levi Strauss. He grew up in Buttenheim in Germany and when he left the country, there were a lot of threats of persecution based on his religion because he was Jewish. When he was 25 years old in 1853 he moved to San Francisco where he started the West Coast division of his family’s dried goods company.

This story of taking risks and going somewhere to start a better life - that sense of possibility and sense of risk taking - is something that really guides our ethos as a company. I think that being headquartered in San Francisco bay area, we are deeply rooted in a place that is built by immigrants and that continues to be nourished by them. For us it's a matter of standing up for those we care about.

What work is Levi Strauss & Co. currently doing to help refugees in the Europe region?

We really have a three-pronged approach: The first involves employees volunteering at local organisations that welcome and support refugees. The second is philanthropy - we have donated one million dollars to an array of organisations that are serving refugees. The third, because we’re an apparel company, is about donating products. In the last three years we have donated 80,000 units of first-rate quality products in several countries around Europe.

Finding work for refugees is also a key focus of ours. In Europe, only 30 percent of refugees between 18-65 have steady work after five years of settling here, and refugee populations take around 20-30 years to gain the same levels of employment as other immigrants in Europe.

We partner with a startup called MicroStart which works with refugees from the Middle East and Africa to create job possibilities. When you look at the numbers I just told you, you can see that this is a real challenge - to identify needs, person-by-person, and to find the right opportunities. But these are the types of partnerships we’re looking for. It’s about living our values of empathy.

When you talk about refugees, there’s naturally an overlap with the topic of politics. Do you think companies need to be careful about the way they address political issues?

It’s been fascinating to see how the ethos of how businesses step in on social issues has changed. It used to be that politics was considered a taboo topic but we are seeing inescapably that consumers are expecting businesses to exercise leadership on the issues and events of the day. This is the most disruptive political environment that most of us have faced in our lifetime and I think it is in times of distribution and times of crisis that we need to ask ourselves: do we continue what we’re doing, do more of what we’re doing, or stop what we’re doing?

If we look back at the last presidential election in November 2016, we had a town hall meeting about two days after and inevitably the election results were brought up. The response from our CEO Chip Bergh was unequivocal: He said this is the time, more than ever, to show the country and the world what it is to be a value-faced institution.

We looked at the first month of this administration and realised that a number of the communities that we had long cared about were facing a lot of threats by the very policies of our own government. We realised that this is the moment to step up and so we created our Rapid Response Fund. We saw that this was such a disruptive environment where refugees, transgender communities, muslims, immigrants and religious minorities were facing a lot of threats so we provided a set of grants to organistations protecting their liberties.

Business in times of crisis is about far more than delivering a profit - it’s about taking responsibility and having the courage to take a stand for issues we care about. Millenials in particular care more than ever not just about what you stand for but what you stand up for. I think as an American icon, we know that what we do and what we say about America really matters.

What is Levi Strauss & Co. doing to ensure the best worker rights across its supply chain?

Back in 1991, we became the first company to have a code of conduct - a set of labour, social and environmental standards that governed all the contracted factories that we worked with. Many of our competitors initially thought we were loony and that we would miss out on price and cost and that it wouldn't be pragmatic but it ended up catching on. It’s called ‘the code that launched a thousand codes’ and it became the standard that governed the industry. We evaluated this and realised that we could go one step further and so five years ago we launched our Worker Well-being (WWB) programme.

We believe it’s not enough just to have a set of rules that govern social and environmental labour practices; we are actually now calling upon all of our suppliers that we do business with to survey workers about their health and their well-being and to roll out programmes that directly address them. By rolling out sustainable programmes we can ensure that it’s not just another ‘one off’ thing - we can really build systems around them.

We commissioned a return on investment study which looked at women's health programmes and the results were really striking. It showed that for every one dollar that is invested in a woman's health programme it yields three or four dollars of return in terms of reduced abscenties, turnover and sick fees. The insight is quite simple: 70-80 percent of all makers in the apparel industry are young women aged 18-25 and the research shows that many women were simply missing work during their monthly menstrual cycle.

What we did was open up a space for education and learning which provided access to sanitary napkins and painkillers. It produced really dramatic results and we found that in factories in Egypt and Pakistan where we carried out this return on investment, the percentage of women taking the maximum number of sick days plummeted by 45 percent and one factory actually gained 615 work days. It proved that women's health is a win both for workers as well as for factories. Two thirds of our supply chain has implemented this and by 2020 we aim to get that to 80 percent. We hope that this becomes a new standard that goes beyond compliance to really improve the lives of workers.

The fashion industry is becoming increasingly less siloed. How important do you think it is for companies to share their progress and targets?

It’s quite rare in the world of public responsibility for folks to actually share their tools or their approaches with others and someone like myself who came for the social sector, I feel like that's the key to scaling. We really believe that this is not something that ought to be proprietary. One way we create impact is to create that chain of teaching and learning. We worked with Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), for example, to create a health curriculum that is tailored to the needs of apparel workers and can be used on factory floors.

We have other tools also which we share with our suppliers and with other brands and we look forward to working with others in our industry collaboratively so that wellbeing will be the new goal, to improve the lives of workers both on and off the factory floor.

What role do you think NGOs play in improving the fashion industry?

Before I came to Levi Strauss & Co. I came from the NGO world. I worked in human rights and particularly in LGBT rights. The organisation I was working at was actually funded by the Levi Strauss Foundation. When I started in the company 15 years ago, the ethos then was that NGOs were something that you should run away from, that they were there to cause trouble.

We now realise that NGOs can be very important and powerful partners. As businesses it’s important to identify NGOs which are really able to assess the needs of workers and improve them, but also ones that are able to speak to factory managers in ways they can understand, to be able to clearly say: “here are the business values that this initiative offers.”

I think the best changemakers are those able to work across sectors and do that translation - that code-switching - and are able to see what social value is as well as what business value is.

How do you see corporate philanthropy evolving in the next 5 to 10 years?

There is no more consequential backdrop than this current political moment for corporate philanthropy to live its promise. Much of the corporate sector in philanthropy gets a bad rap and is met with raised eyebrows. When I speak to millennial consumers they can really sniff out authenticity and a lot of corporate philanthropy is focused on reputation or PR. But I think the corporate sector has the ability to really use its dollars, profits and influence to take on the social issues of the day.

We have 68 million people who are displaced all around the world at the moment, either refugees who have crossed borders or internally displaced people. That’s more than any time since World War II. That’s forty-four thousand people daily who are forced to leave their homes for fear of persecution, 50 percent of which are children. So I think this has been a moment where we have seen our employees demonstrating their activism and their empathy, especially here in Europe, in our offices in Belgium, France and Germany. I don’t feel like I know anyone who isn’t concerned about the world we’re living in at the moment, especially with this refugee crisis.

What is your highlight from working at the Levi Strauss Foundation?

I think my proudest moment is knowing that in this moment of crisis - domestically in the US and globally as far as this refugee crisis is concerned - as an organisation we’re living our values, we’re using our voice, we’re using our influence, and we’re using the sweat equity of our employees to really address the issues in front of us.

We have to ask ourselves, are we creating a world built around the protection of those most marginal; or around vilification, blame and exclusion? I think that as a company that is built on empathy, courage, integrity and originality, we’re not afraid to speak out and use every tool at our disposal.

When I wake up everyday and think about what it is that I can do that actually has an impact - a question we ask ourselves everyday at Levi Strauss & Co. - I think the answer is that we’re really staking our claim in a world that is more inclusive and one that is built on social justice.

Photo credit: Levi Strauss & Co.

Daniel Lee
Levi Strauss & Co
levi strauss foundation
Social Responsibility