Geert Peeters, senior vice president for Levis global supply chain

Geert Peeters, senior vice president for Levi's global supply chain

Heading up supply chain operations for Levi Strauss, the world's largest denim brand, Geert Peeters strives to source jeans in a sustainable, fashionable and compliant way. just-style news editor Joe Ayling caught up with him at the sidelines of a London event to launch its new WaterLess line.

Levi Strauss & Co knows how to throw a party. just-style is at the launch of a collection of denim jeans requiring less water in their production, but it feels more rock and roll than that. Blue 'waterless' cocktails are served to guests, while a semi-naked male model poses for shots in a giant bath tub.

Eventually, key Levi Strauss executives including Geert Peeters, senior vice president for Levi's global supply chain, take to a giant white stage and the DJ set is over.

"Our first objective is to make jeans that are leading edge from a design point of view, but we also develop our jeans in a way that has the least possible impact on the environment," Peeters tells an audience of press, stakeholders, competitors and NGOs. 

It is 10pm before the 'formalities' are over, at which point just-style is given a chance to quiz Peeters about how the world's largest denim company sources its goods. The sharply-dressed Belgian, who has worked for Levi Strauss since 2002 after joining from VF Corporation, leads just-style backstage where the discussion begins.

"We don't do this as a marketing gimmick"
The Levi Strauss company is 155 years old, and claims to have led industry values since its inception. This month the company announced plans for new terms of engagement (TOE) with suppliers from 2012 - the first such change in 20 years.

"We were the first international brand that would put a very high standard out there for health and safety and sustainability for all its vendors around the world," Peeters tells just-style.

"We will now further develop these terms of engagement so they move on from pure compliance to a more holistic project where we will also look at the welfare of people and the community."

Levi Strauss recently published a list of all its global vendors, which is found here.

Peeters says: "We are as transparent as we can be to the outside world, including NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations), to say 'hey guys, this is what we're doing and this is where we are doing it'. Feel free to look into it because we don't do this as a marketing gimmick, we do it because it is embedded into our DNA and the values of our company."

Nevertheless, along with other high-profile fashion brands, Levi Strauss receives its fair share of NGO attention when something in the supply chain does go wrong.

For example, in August 2009 it faced reports of chemical dumping and pollution by joint suppliers in the African country of Lesotho. The company admitted at the time it "can’t solve these problems alone – or overnight", but stuck with its Lesotho project, where landfill and river pollution have since been addressed.

"We do have auditors who go and check our vendor base on a regular basis to see how they are doing," Peeters tells just-style. "Obviously, they do find issues from time to time, but that's where this should not only be seen as policing because they are also there to coach and help, discuss and collaborate with the vendors to find solutions.

"It's easy to set a standard, but in certain environments and certain countries it is not as easy as in other countries to reach those. What we are doing is to set a roadmap of how to achieve certain standards by certain times.

"It's not a black and white point, but more about working together, so there is a strong partnership element. Vendors know that by working like that they can see long-term business with us."

He says that other brands in the apparel industry are keen to form partnerships too, adding: "We know that some of our competitors have similar vendors and we work together on the auditing."

The various costs of making jeans
The subject of the evening's event, Levi's WaterLess jeans, first hit the headlines six months ago when the collection was unveiled in the US. The jeans, launched in Europe this week, use 20% less water, primarily by reducing the number of machine wash cycles in the finishing process.

It is just the tip of the iceberg for water consumption while making a pair of Levi's, as the company well knows, because its life-cycle analysis for producing 501 jeans shows the largest water impact comes from cotton growing and the laundry habits of consumers. Levi Strauss is a member of the Better Cotton Initiative, which is bidding to lower water usage.

However, surely isn't it the cost of cotton, rather than its water consumption, that is troubling apparel buyers most at present?

"Together with everybody in the market, we were exposed to this very strong surge in cotton prices that happened mainly in 2010.

"We had to increase prices as a result, but at the same time seeing how we can further control our costs throughout the whole supply chain. Cotton is a key element and because of that we had to do some adjustments in our prices.

"We did see a recent slight reduction [in cotton prices], which went together with the reduction of oil, silver and other commodities, but to what degree this is a fundamental change it is too early to say, but we will monitor it very closely."

As Peeters makes his point the thumping beats from next door's extravaganza continue. The circumstances are perhaps indicative of the company itself, which wants compliance high on the agenda but without spoiling the party.

Peeters adds: "I believe supply chain is on one hand an enabler, but also a key partner within the management team of a company to make the company achieve its long term goals."