How LS&Co. Is Building A More Sustainable Supply Chain

Levi Strauss & Co.
June 16, 2015

Q&A with Liz O’Neill, SVP of Product Development and Sourcing at LS&Co.

photoThe word sustainability often conjures images of specific consumer behaviors — buying based on quality and durability, washing less and recycling more to protect the planet. Here at LS&Co., how our products are made is just as important as what happens to them after they’re purchased.

That’s where Liz O’Neill comes in. As SVP of Product Development and Sourcing, she’s devoted to making sure our products are made as efficiently and sustainably as possible. For Liz that means finding opportunities to streamline the supply chain and reduce costs. In fact, during her year-and-a-half tenure at LS&Co., she’s already won two excellence awards for negotiating cost-savings.

It also means making sure our workers and their families are healthy, safe, secure, educated and respected — an issue about which Liz is particularly passionate. She’s been a strong advocate for our Worker Well-being program and has been a driving force behind the development of a service corps program for our employees (that’s her in the photo, during a recent trip to Haiti to support a pilot program).

Unzipped recently sat down with Liz (who was recently named one of the Bay Area’s Most Influential Women in Business) to get the scoop on shifting industry standards, LS&Co.’s Worker Well-being program and keeping it all in perspective.

What is an aspect of your job that might surprise people?

In the past, I think people felt like there was the sourcing world, where you’re producing at the right cost and quality, and then the sustainability world, where you’re a watchdog for human rights and environmental regulation. In recent years, it has become apparent that those two worlds are completely interconnected. And you can actually make progress against both your sustainability goals and business goals if you approach things collaboratively.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

We have moved really fast since I’ve been here in terms of accomplishing the things that we set out to accomplish. Having focused but critical goals help to drive that progress, and we’ve been successful because everybody pulled together. The sum of the parts is truly greater than the whole.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

At Eureka Innovation Lab, Bart Sights and his team are making industry-changing innovations. How do we use less water? How do we eliminate chemicals? It takes a lot of drive, creativity and ideas — not only about how to use less water, but also how to get the consumer the product they want while doing so.

The connectivity that we’re starting to feel between the sourcing team and the sustainability team is pretty unique. It is going to help us drive so many improvements from a social responsibility point of view in terms of conditions that our factory workers experience, as well as on the environmental side.

Can you share an example?

We’re rolling out our Worker Well-being program to a number of our suppliers. The program focuses on improving industry standards related to workers’ economic empowerment; health and family well-being; equality and acceptance; education and professional development; and access to a safe and healthy environment. We are asking that by the year 2020, all of our key vendors have these programs in place. That would mean that about 80 percent of our business at any given moment would be made in facilities that are Worker Well-being-qualified; it will impact up to 140,000 workers.

Are you influencing other companies to do the same?

Yes. There are a number of companies out there that have programs like ours. The difference with Levi Strauss & Co. is that we’re really willing to share the program. We have taken the stance that if we’re doing something good, we should be looking to scale it across the supply chain — not just within the LS&Co. suppliers.

Have vendors been receptive to the program?

The conversation with our vendors is no longer that these programs would differentiate them from their peers. We’re saying that everybody needs to do this. At the same time, we’re also trying to show them positive business results. If you understand the needs of your workers and support them through programs and education, you will see business benefits such as less attrition and higher productivity within the day-to-day work.

What phrase helps guide you?

Keep yourself focused on the big wins. LS&Co. is a big company with a lot of people relying on it — whether it’s our workers or our customers or our shareholders. But keeping perspective helps you to be more effective. Yes, we have a responsibility to make the best product, but it’s okay that we’re not going to get everything right the first time; we are making a lot of progress on a lot of different fronts.


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