View from the C-Suite: Levi’s wears a sustainable message on its sleeve

Within an unsustainable fashion industry, the denim brand builds on its quality positioning to encourage customers to wear clothing longer.

Chris Jackman

According to Levi’s, the business of fashion has become unsustainable: between the years 2000 and 2020 global apparel consumption doubled, as more people amassed more expansive wardrobes, wearing each piece fewer times. So the nearly 150-year-old American denim company is working with young activists to encourage customers to be more mindful about their clothing purchases.

In April, it debuted “Buy Better, Wear Longer,” a global campaign to bring awareness to the environmental impacts of apparel production and consumption that featured changemakers on the sustainability frontlines, from internet personality Emma Chamberlain to English footballer and philanthropist Marcus Rashford. The creative builds on Levi’s long-standing proposition of offering durable, quality products that last longer (clothes meant to be worn “for generations, not seasons.”)

But in encouraging customers to change their own habits, it’s leveraging a strategy seen in other categories like CPG that recognizes advancing sustainability goals requires also addressing consumer use.

“We realized and zeroed in on the fact that the industry at large just makes so many clothes, and we believe they’re not worn long enough,” says Chris Jackman, VP of global marketing at Levi’s. “We tried to bring [the campaign] to a simple place – the fact that the fashion industry could come together and offer, whether it’s education or better solutions from a product perspective, consumers a way to do exactly that — consume more consciously, or at least be able to have that question in their mind about ‘why am I buying’ and ‘what am I buying’ before I do it.”

A few days after the campaign launched, Levi’s debuted another sustainability-focused initiative that was a Canadian and global first. The brand worked with Snapchat to create a double Portal Lens that enables users to virtually try on a customized Trucker jacket and transport themselves onto a virtual boardwalk in a Canadian landscape where they can learn about three of its sustainability initiatives. At the end, users enter a 360-degree virtual showroom, where they can browse Levi’s products and make purchases directly within the app. As of June 1, the lens had been used by 2.6 million users in Canada.

Strategy spoke with Jackman about the brand’s sustainability messaging and where it fits within its marketing strategy both in Canada and abroad.

How do you put sustainability and re-use at the core of your brand message, while meeting other business needs, such as driving revenue and growth? That must present a challenge to any marketer working in this space. 

It’s a challenge, of course. But we really feel like we can stand behind the fact that [our products] last as long as a consumer needs them to last. And we have the resources like our Tailor Shops and even DIY content that allow people to be able to extend the use and the length of those products.

So [this campaign] didn’t feel like too much of a challenge, because the way it connects to the message just felt so pure, to be honest. And, ultimately, if you’re looking at fast fashion or our competitors, if we’re saying, ‘Think about what you buy, understand what you’re buying and buy something that’s a little bit of a better option,’ coming over to Levi’s feels like a good business decision when you’re trying to have that conversation with the consumer.

Coming at this from a global perspective, I assume consumer sentiment is a little different in the various countries in which you operate. How do you develop a campaign that aligns with these various consumer needs? 

We did global research and it was pretty widespread [sentiment] globally that the younger generations are interested in sustainability, interested in companies that are doing the right thing, and have a voice in the space of progress. So there was complete comfort globally in the fact that we were connecting with a truth from that generation of consumers.

You can also look at data from search terms within Google of the increase in people’s natural interest in sustainability and how clothing is made and what it means to buy something better. So it all kind of pointed towards this being something that connected deeply with the consumer. So it wasn’t a hard sell, when I looked globally, at the connection point.

Where does sustainability fit within your overall messaging as a brand? What other brand messages are important to your brand today? 

Xiye BastidaIt’s core going forward, certainly. And that focus on delivering quality products, designed to last, sits across our entire offering. So it doesn’t feel as if it’s a message on one side, and that there are others in the market. Of course, you want to offer things that consumers are enjoying at any given time.

But as long as they’re made well, designed to last, you understand what’s going into them. And from a manufacturing perspective, you feel confident that you’re putting a really great product out there, which can then enable people to wear it longer. So there’s a consistency across our offering, no matter what the message is.

You said this is a long-term platform for the brand, one that has no firm end date. How has it performed so far? 

We’re seeing a lot of very positive sentiment, within social specifically. When this launched, we saw positive sentiment north of 87% into 90% and higher – which right away you go, ‘Okay, there’s at least positive engagement.’

But since [not too much time has passed] since the April launch, we’re still trying to get a read on how it’s going. The positive social sentiment was a great barometer, for sure. And then we saw a pretty strong uptick in average daily brand mentions globally. And that’s across all social platforms. So the conversation was occurring at a higher rate, and then you overlay it with the positive social sentiment [and you can see that it] wasn’t something that people were ignoring, or certainly weren’t pleased with.

What trends are you seeing in the denim space right now? 

I like to think that much of what we’ve seen even in the last few months will continue in that people are seeking out quality products. I really believe that, whether it’s because of the pandemic or not, there seems to be a return back to things that last, that have long-term value. And that people realize and ask themselves the questions about what the environmental footprint of that purchase might be, whether it’s jeans, apparel, or anything in anyone’s life. Maybe that’s more of a hope than what I think is going to happen in the future. But we’ve seen some of that play out. And I really do think that trend will continue.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It is part of a series for Strategy C-Suite, a weekly briefing on how Canada’s brand leaders are responding to market challenges and acting on new opportunities.