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  • Bryan Tan

Sustainability is a matter of survival - Making the Cut with Nuholt Huisamen

We speak to Nuholt Huisamen, Senior Vice President & Managing Director, East Asia Pacific, Levi Strauss & Co. on how the global leader in jeanswear is implementing sustainability through their ‘profits through principle’ approach.

Q: So Nuholt, we're here to talk about sustainability and now when it comes to the definition of sustainability, the United Nations has defined it as the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability for future generations to meet their own needs. So we know that sustainability is very much implemented very differently across different organisations, so what does sustainability mean to Levi Strauss & Co.?

Well Eunice, you know, I think it's important to understand the personality of Levi Strauss & Co. You know, we've been around for 169 years, we have this thing that we talk about, "to deliver profits through principles" and this has always been the thing that has guided us over time. Although we have a lot of initiatives we're doing ourselves, we also want to leverage our leadership position as the global jeans wear leader, to impact the industry as a whole.

Q: So let's talk a little bit about what the company is doing to achieve your sustainability targets. Maybe you can tell me a little bit about that.

For us, being in the clothing industry, it's not as great a track record, right? So the imperative is clear. We have to reduce emissions, we have to use less water and we have to educate our workers. So when you think of these three areas, our strategy around sustainability is really around climate consumption and community.

In 2010, we co-founded an organisation called BCI - Better Cotton Initiative, to really put in practices to make use of, or better use of, water. Better or no use of harmful chemicals, as well as improve the livelihood of the farmworkers. So cotton and water are two of the big ones for us over there.

But an interesting one here in Singapore, we've this year submitted our report to the Singapore government around reducing the packaging on our product, and so in 2022 alone we will reduce our product paper packaging by 30%.

And we'll also reduce many of the plastic components that we use to ship our products. Our stores are completely eliminating that, so that's a good one. But I think the one that affects consumers is around circular economy. You know, and that's really about educating consumers on how they choose products and how they use products.

Q: I've learned that technology is an enabler of the circular economy, and the circular economy, of course, is an enabler of sustainability. So from your perspective, how do you think technology has helped with achieving environmental objectives?

We now use 100% laser technology with all our denim finishing which reduces or I should say, eliminates chemical use completely. So this is one.

At the other end of the circular economy, we, within the organization are completely switching to digital tools. So when we sell our product to our customers by using digital tools, we reduce the need for samples, physical samples, which again reduces waste.

Q: Now, in the BMW iX, many parts of this car actually use environmentally sustainable materials. So for example, if you look at the leather, this is a really nice hue, right? This natural leather is tanned using an environmentally friendly process that relies on the olive leaf's extract. When it comes to Levi’s, what kind of challenges do you face when you tap on new environmentally friendly materials or even recycled materials?

So our "profits through principles" approach has always guided us through this process. We have different tiered pricing, and so at the higher end, where we pioneer these technologies, the products cost more. We have consumers that buy into it and consumers want that and they look for that, and they're prepared to pay more for the products that can prove that they're more sustainable. We're very reliant on our supply chain, and with our supply chain partners, we've been working and pioneering ways of working with suppliers from the turn of the century. So that's not new stuff for us.

Q: So you've kind of been working on sustainability even before it's been so talked about, right?

You know, Eunice, our biggest criticism is that we've not talked about it that much. Internally within the company, it's one of our best-kept secrets.

It's important for our consumers to know that sustainability is important for consumers, to know where our brands stand with them when they make a product choice.

Q: Now, the BMW iX that we're in it's probably the first EV SUV that's been produced with 100% green energy, and invariably when you make changes to your production process, of course it affects your cost and when you apply circular economy principles it definitely helps your bottom line by reducing costs as well. How do you manage your production costs, make sure that you have a sustainable supply chain or production process and still stay competitive?

If you think of where Levi’s started, we were a manufacturing branded company. That has completely shifted, we only have two owned and operated plants today.

The majority of our supply chain is outsourced but we work with these suppliers on many things, not just sustainability. We call it terms of engagement, there's a very stringent TOE (terms of engagement) contract that we have with each of our suppliers and this talks about quality of life for the workers in those factories, but also about sustainability goals.

Q: As you lead the way in achieving sustainability objectives, the individual plays a very important part as well. So what is your advice for all of us as individuals, and how we can also help to move environmental objectives along?

It's about simple things. One, make good choices when you choose a garment, when you choose a piece of clothing, think of that company, of that brand, what that product is made of and whether it's a quality and a durable product, that's number one.

Number two, think of your use of that product over its lifetime. As I said, water usage is probably the highest during the use (of the products) by the consumers? So how you take care of that product, you’ll also be taking care of the planet.

Q: I can tell that you're personally very passionate about sustainability. So I just want to ask you, why is sustainability so important to you?

Now, first, to talk about me as a human being and as a father of kids, thinking of the future is important for our long term. The word 'sustainability' means sustained living on this planet. So I don't think there's a more important cause? I can't think of one. As a guy that works for a company that has great values and principles, I've been with the company now for 20 years, it resonates with me. So I just think it's a matter of survival, but also, it's a good thing, you feel good about it when you do something good.

Q: Now, tell me, since this program is called Making the Cut, which Levi's jeans makes the cut for you personally?

That's an easy one. I think everyone knows the 501. It's most people's first pair, but what I'm wearing here today is a 501 with 'Slim Taper'. So you might know that the normal or original 501 is a straight cut, this is a slim tapered cut, but it's still a 501 button fly jeans and it's my current favourite.


This content is brought to you in collaboration with BMW Asia.

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