As Levi’s pushes sustainable denim forward, the brand is shifting its focus to cotton production. Natalie Hubbard, senior sustainability specialist at Levi Strauss & Co., said that cotton production and consumer care are the two steps in denim production with the greatest impact on the environment, according to the Levi’s Life Cycle Assessment in March 2015, which evaluated the impact of a pair of Levi’s 501 from cradle to grave.

With these new statistics in mind, Levi’s is placing new focus on its work with the Better Cotton Initiative, and, by 2020, the brand is looking to be 74 percent Better Cotton, after committing to 20% Better Cotton for 2015.

The USFIA presented a webinar to members interested in learning about responsible cotton production with Natalie Hubbard and Daren Abney, membership engagement manager at the Better Cotton Initiative.

The speakers offered these five takeaways on sustainable denim production and employing the BCI system.

Products made with intelligent design reduce social and environmental impact

At Levi’s, the Wellthread product line was designed with the goal of using less water and creating a longer-lasting and more durable product. The innovation team behind Wellthread created Water-less fabric that uses 65 percent less water than conventionally dyed denim through more sustainable dyeing and finishing practices. In terms of the product’s social impact, Levi’s organized a worker well-being program with factories around the world invested in improving the lives of the people who work on the Wellthread product.

Stretch and blended fabrics are harder to recycle

Hubbard pointed out that the more fibers in a fabric, the more difficult that fabric then becomes to recycle at the end of its life. Levi’s is now researching 100 percent cotton products, with the recognition that these fabrics are not optimal from a performance point of view; the company is also examining new innovations in elastic fibers and synthetics to try to find innovations that avoid too many blends.

The BCI standard is based on improvement, not specific thresholds

Abney explained that there is a difference in how BCI operates in the U.S. versus how it works in developing nations, like India or Pakistan, where there aren’t the same governmental support systems for farmers. The BCI standard is process based, meaning that it is based on improvement on data you collect at your farm, not on absolute targets in water or fertilizer reductions. “We’re not trying to achieve specific thresholds with the standard. Our aim is to set Better Cotton farmers on a journey of continuous improvement,” said Abney. For farms in the U.S., the minimum requirements for BCI may even be less strict than U.S. legislation, and this is why the approach is grounded in the idea that every brand can improve on its performance.

It takes six months to a year for a brand to join BCI

BCI should be perceived as more than just a CSR initiative, it’s a responsible sourcing program where you work with integrated teams at your company to source a specific product and to pull product through your supply chain, Abney said. From the start of the conversation with a company’s CSR or material sourcing team, it can take anywhere from 6 months to a year to get the brand sourcing BCI cotton.

BCI is not traceable through the supply chain but instead works on mass balance

Brands cannot pick out which of their individual fabrics or products contain Better Cotton, as the cotton is not physically traceable. It is instead based on mass balance, or the principle that what goes in must come out. The organization uses a measurement unit called a BCCU, or a Better Cotton Claim Unit. The BCCU follows the supply chain to the brand, who can then claim responsibility for the system that has pulled the cotton through their supply chain. The system is not about getting Better Cotton in your product immediately, Abney said, but about working toward saturating the market. “In terms of reaching scalability for a commodity, we felt like this was the mechanism to move that system forward,” Abney said.

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