Last week, Levi Strauss & Company announced their Wellthread initiative, "A sustainable design and production process that benefits consumers, apparel workers and the environment." Now we just have to figure out what the heck that process consists of—the press release [PDF] is filled with corpo-speak like this:
By embedding the creative constraints of sustainability into the design process from the start, the company has unlocked innovation and business value in the form of a more efficient and flexible production process. "The design mind is still delighted by these creative challenges that are put to it. But if we put these guardrails on the activity, it actually has tremendous unlock in terms of business potential," says Paul Dillinger, Senior Director of Design at Dockers Brand.
By digging through the announcement's catchphrases, this is what we think Wellthread consists of, on the design front:
Design for Durability. "Turning past experience into future promise, a journey into the Levi Strauss & Co. archives uncovered the key points of stress that demanded reinforcement—from buttonholes to pockets." That's all the detail provided on that matter, but we assume it means they'll design garments with more stitching in those areas.
Anticipating the Rise of Clothing Recycling. This part is a little more clear: Although clothing recycling isn't currently anywhere near as large an industry as plastic and metals recycling are, Levi's is betting it will be in the future, and is incorporating "an innovative new long-staple yarn designed to hold up through the recycling process without sacrificing the strength of the cloth." Presumably their designers have been educated on how to incorporate this new material into the design of new garments.
Modifying Consumer Behavior Through Design. Garments with the Wellthread stamp will apparently have laundry instructions specifying cold water, and the garments themselves will have "added touches such as locker loops on khakis and overlapped fabric at the shoulder seam of t-shirts to encourage hang drying," these things intended to make individual consumers use less energy. We're not sure those things will be enough to change consumer behavior on their own; there will likely be some education and marketing required to drive this point home.
The manufacturing changes of Wellthread are a little easier to understand:
New Dyes and Dyeing Processes. This is straight-up chemistry: Levi's is incorporating cold-water pigment dyes and salt-free reactive dyes, both of which use about 30% less energy and water during the manufacturing process.
Tightening Up the Manufacturing Process. The Wellthread operation moves the dyeing process from the textile mill to the clothing factory, which will create a more nimble operation with less overruns of suddenly-out-of-fashion colors. Pretty much Business 101.
The third pillar of the Wellthread process, the benefits to the factory workers themselves, is perhaps the most vaguely worded part of all: "A new pilot program is working to improve the lives of factory workers by using their input to create initiatives specific to the needs of each region." That could mean a Toyota-like canvassing of everyone from janitors to forepeople on how best to streamline production, or it could be a suggestion box nailed to the wall. Hopefully more details will emerge in future.
As much as I'm breaking Levi's stones over the vague descriptions, the fact is that they do deserve applause for undertaking a self-driven initiative to improve their environmental footprint. And whether or not consumers can comprehend the Wellthread process, there is one important component they surely will understand: Wellthread garments, which will be rolling out in Spring 2014, will carry a 30% lower price tag. If Levi's can make sustainably-produced garments cheaper than conventional ones, they will have pulled off an industry-shaking coup.