By Lisa Clemens
Photos by Mark Luinenburg
Reach into your closet for a favorite piece of clothing, and you’re likely to pull out a pair of well-worn jeans. San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Co. (LS&Co.) patented the riveted denim “work pant” in 1873, 20 years after the company was founded. Long a symbol of the American West, Levi’s® jeans have been a part of generations of cultural expression. The iconic brand is beloved all over the world for its comfort, quality and durability.
Sustainability is now also part of the brand’s resonance due to the company’s farsighted management and the work of its global sustainability team, headed by Michael Kobori. A few years back, Chip Bergh, the company’s CEO, asked Kobori’s team to develop a long-term vision for sustainability, which resulted in declaring a big goal: LS&Co. would become the most sustainable apparel company in the world.
“Our company has long embraced ‘profits through principles’ as our operating philosophy,” said Kobori. “Through our supply chain, we’ve championed social justice, economic opportunity and the environment, and established high expectations for ourselves and our suppliers.”
Kobori has a keen sense of the challenge ahead. In 2007 and again in 2015, LS&Co. conducted a lifecycle assessment of a pair of Levi’s 501® jeans. The results showed that cotton production and consumer care were the two areas in the life of a pair of jeans with the greatest impact on the environment. Both were largely outside of the company’s direct control.
LS&Co. dug deep into consumer habits, urging wearers to wash their jeans less frequently, use cold water and line-dry, and reuse and recycle them to keep clothing out of landfills. Kobori laughs, “It’s been called the ‘Dirty Jeans Manifesto.’”
To address the sustainability challenges related to growing cotton, LS&Co. turned to its partnership with the Better Cotton Initiative, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the sustainability of global cotton production. The jeans maker set the ambitious goal to source 75 percent of its cotton as Better Cotton by 2020 — up from 12 percent in 2015.
The pursuit of this aggressive goal brought together LS&Co. and Cargill. Cargill doesn’t sell cotton directly to the denim giant today, but it’s currently the world’s largest trader of Better Cotton.
“Better Cotton” is the name given by the Better Cotton Initiative to cotton produced in a way that cares for the environment, the people who grow the crop and the sector as a whole. In addition to buying and selling Better Cotton, Cargill also helps farmers and cooperatives become licensed producers of it and, in turn, provides textile companies with Better Cotton for spinning into yarn and weaving or knitting into fabrics for apparel and home furnishings sold by global retailers and brands.
“Today we have a new environment, where we’ve begun talking to the customers of our customers,” says Robin Pigot, Cargill’s head of global cotton merchandising. “We have very good relationships with farmers as well as the mills that supply fabric to Levi’s, so it only makes sense that we follow our cotton all the way to the end customer.”
On the farm
It’s mid-November and nearing the end of cotton harvest in the Arkansas Delta. The flat fields are dotted with giant, round, yellow plastic-wrapped modules of tightly packed cotton, waiting to be hauled to the gin, where the cotton fibers will be separated from the seed. Barret Folk, an origination merchant for Cargill’s cotton business in Memphis, Tennessee, swings his SUV into the muddy driveway of Lindsey Brothers farm.
Getting out to talk with customers is the best part of his job, especially when he can help them get the right price for their crop. For cotton farmer Elmer “B” Lindsey, a 20-year Cargill customer, it’s been a challenging season, with too much rain at planting time, rising input costs and declining per pound prices. Lindsey plants about 2,500 of his 5,000 acres with cotton, and he’s philosophical about current conditions. “I’ve been in this since 1965, and it always runs in cycles. Guess it always will.”
As the name suggests, Lindsey Brothers is a family business. He’s earned a reputation for his high yield, high-quality cotton, soil conservation and preservation of wildlife habitat. In 2015, his 50th year of farming, Lindsey took on a new challenge and, with Cargill’s help, became a licensed large-farm grower of Better Cotton.
Folk helped Lindsey complete a self-assessment of his farm management practices to ensure the farm met Better Cotton Initiative production principles and criteria for environmental stewardship and working conditions. Lindsey sold his first Better Cotton crop in 2015, making his business among the first in the Cotton Belt to gain access to international markets for U.S.-grown Better Cotton.
The vast majority of Better Cotton is grown by smallholders in developing markets such as India, Pakistan and many countries in Africa. Working with a number of implementing partners, the Better Cotton Initiative helps farmers adopt agricultural practices that reduce environmental impact and lift their incomes through higher yields, reduced costs and access to the global market.
But the U.S. is the world’s third-largest cotton producing country and its cotton quality is preferred by many textile companies. In response to demand from its retail members, the Better Cotton Initiative launched a pilot project with U.S. farmers in 2014, and Cargill has since been the largest purchaser of this supply by far.
For Lindsey, it’s just the latest development in years of working with Cargill, to which he has exclusively sold his cotton for more than a decade. He describes Folk as “a merchant that wants to see you do well and make money.” With cotton prices on the downslide, Cargill’s risk management expertise is particularly important. Lindsey says that “working with Cargill has gotten us far above anything we thought we could here, as cotton ginners.”
The farm is just the first step for Better Cotton. As the fiber moves through the supply chain, the program follows a “mass balance” chain of custody. It allows Better Cotton and conventional cotton to be mixed together, while ensuring — at each step in the chain — that the quantity purchased from a licensed Better Cotton grower is equal to the quantity sold with a Better Cotton claim.
“Rather than segregate and track every bale of Better Cotton, the massbalance approach lets consumers know that farmers, the environment and the industry as a whole benefits from Better Cotton’s cultivation at scale,” said Kerem Saral, supply chain manager at the Better Cotton Initiative. “It encourages rapid uptake of Better Cotton.”
Turning cotton into denim
One of the critical steps in the supply chain is the textile mill. Grupo Kaltex is Mexico’s largest textile company, producing yarn, fabrics, synthetic fibers, and yes — denim for LS&Co. It’s also a new member of the Better Cotton Initiative.
The center of denim manufacturing for Kaltex is its denim mill in San Juan del Rio, about 170 kilometers northwest of Mexico City in the country’s central state of Querétaro. Family owned, Kaltex traces its roots to the 1920s, when the company began by selling yardage door to door. It then opened a store, ran mills for nearby cotton cooperatives and, in the 1940s, established its first fabric factory. Today, it operates spinning mills, weaving mills, a denim mill and finishing operations.
Raw cotton is one of Kaltex’s most important inputs, amounting to 50-70 percent of the cost to produce yarn. Pricing is so important that the purchasing responsibility is retained by Adolfo Kalach, one of the family owners who serves as vice president. The company buys U.S. cotton, primarily for its fiber strength, quality and reliability. These attributes are graded by the USDA’s classification system, which “classes” every bale according to specifications for the length, strength, fineness, color and uniformity of the fibers — characteristics that affect Kaltex’s manufacturing efficiency and product consistency.
“With this data, Kaltex starts planning the lay down (the order in which bales are blended for processing into yarn) before the cotton even arrives,” says Roberto Ferrer, a Cargill Cotton merchant who handles international sales.
The production of denim, as described by Ferrer, is “pretty spectacular.” The manufacturing process starts by unraveling huge balls of off-white yarn that arrive from Kaltex’s spinning mill, where bales of raw cotton were converted to yarn. In quick succession, the yarn is splayed out, washed, indigo dyed and dried, then gathered into 400-thread-thick, 17,500-meter-long ropes that are circularly stacked six meters high. After passing into a temperature- and humidity-controlled room, high-speed machines open the ropes and align the threads, which are too soft to weave. To add strength, the yarn is treated with a modified corn starch. Once dry, the yarn travels to a vast, vibrating field of huge looms that use propulsive technology to weave denim fabric almost faster than the eye can see.
The fabric descends from view and resurfaces in giant bolts in the next room. There, the denim is unwound, stretched high and taken through various finishing processes, including a compressed shrinking that provides dimensional stability. Before the fabric is ready to be cut and sewn, it’s hand-checked for quality, color and variation.
At Kaltex, sustainability is part of taking the long view. “Everything we do today is what we believe the company will need to look at for the next 90 years,” says Kalach.
Unlocking a world
In 2016-17, Cargill expects to trade at least 250,000 bales of Better Cotton, which would maintain its place as the largest trader of Better Cotton in the world. This volume makes it a critical partner in helping the Better Cotton Initiative — and its growing network of producers, traders, mills, manufacturers, retailers and brands — reach their shared goal for Better Cotton to make up 30 percent of global cotton production.
“Cargill is the linkage between supply and demand,” says Saral. “Without you, our Better Cotton bales wouldn’t be pulled into the supply chains of our retailers and brands all over the world. It’s priceless to have Cargill at our side.”
LS&Co.’s Kobori says working with Cargill has helped his team set sensible targets with the textile mills for their Better Cotton usage. And he says Cargill is “invaluable” in how it works with farmers to secure the supply of Better Cotton.
“We’ve worked with Kaltex and others for many years,” he said. “We’ve never really had relationships with the people they work with, particularly commodity traders and merchants. For us to understand how Better Cotton comes into Cargill’s system and all of the factors you look at — that unlocks a world for us.”
It’s a world in which sustainability is likely to be in style for many years to come.
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Published September 28, 2016