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Levis quietly adopts a climate-change strategy

More companies incorporating global warming considerations into business plans.

Jeans maker sees potential threats to water, cotton in a warming world

By Mike Bellamente

When an iconic figure makes a bold statement, conventional wisdom suggests that the statement is meant to be heard. Lady Gaga didn’t don a meat dress to the 2010 MTV music awards because it was high fashion, just as Iran isn’t necessarily enriching uranium to advance their stock in nuclear energy.

So earlier this month when Levi Strauss & Company (LS&CO) released their 2012 Climate Change Strategy (view announcement or download the PDF), it seems counter-intuitive that so little media fanfare accompanied the launch. Shouldn’t Chip Bergh, LS&CO’s CEO, be out seeking airtime with Good Morning America and the talk show circuit for recognition? 

The unfortunate reality is that climate change remains such a high voltage issue for people that addressing it as a corporation can no longer be effectively marketed as a benefit to consumers. If “green” is the darling of eco-marketing, then “climate-friendly” is the egghead sister that no one wants to date. People don’t want to be saddled with the world’s problems when they are out buying jeans. In fact, consumer brands are more likely to risk alienating politically conservative consumers (53 percent of whom deny global warming) than they stand to gain in boosting sales for demonstrating leadership in corporate responsibility.

Why then, if not for publicity, would an iconic American denim company even bother to publish a climate change strategy?  As Chip points out in his opening message, LS&CO. faces “significant business risks, ranging from disruptions to our operations, to the availability of water, and to potential impacts to cotton supply, our core raw material.” This sounds very little like leftist hippie hyper-alarmism and more like an even-tempered, inward-facing business decision aimed at protecting the long-term interests of the company.

But wait; isn’t sound corporate management generally aligned with conservative values?   Ironically, the country has become so intensely blinded by political ideals as to recognize that the business community — which drives more than a few of the big ticket items central to the November elections (jobs, economic prosperity, etc.) — has already moved on to the solutions piece of the climate change puzzle, while more than a third of the country continues to denounce climate science altogether.

For its part, Levi Strauss and Co aims to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions tied to offices, retail stores and distribution centers 25 percent by 2020, while increasing renewable energy purchases by 20 percent during that same time frame. Similarly, consumer products giant Reckitt-Benckiser, with over a 100 brands including Clearasil, Frank’s Red Hot and Lysol, has committed to reducing its overall carbon impact by one-third by 2020 as part of its “better business” initiative.

Even companies normally seen as competitors (Nike, Adidas, and Puma for starters) are banding together to form alliances like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, or, in the case of the beverage industry, the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER).  More explicitly related to climate change is the BICEP coalition — Businesses for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy – led by Ceres, a Boston-based nonprofit.   nd, just to drive the point home, major oil companies like Shell and Conoco Phillips are even developing corporate strategies tied to climate change.

Companies the world over are assessing climate change risks and costs in manners that are material to their business. If severe weather threatens to disrupt distribution channels, companies need to ensure against such risks in the same manner that rising energy costs would drive the business case for maximizing energy efficiency.

But again, while multi-billion dollar, multi-national players are increasingly addressing climate impacts that may affect their bottom line, there is little motivation to shout their progress from the rooftops. In a world where the customer is king, demand for low-carbon products and corporate climate leadership is trumped mightily by traditional demand drivers like price, product quality and brand image.

If climate change were considered hip, companies would be tripping over themselves to share their climate change strategies with consumers as a way to sell product. Until that happens, though, companies will rightfully go only as far as good business dictates, while we the consumer continue being spoon-fed a more marketable and more attractive version of eco-friendliness: more green.

Mike Bellamente is the director of Climate Counts, a national nonprofit aimed at bringing consumers and corporations together on climate change.  Bellamente has written extensively on environmental sustainability in the private sector and has appeared on Huffington Post and GreenBiz.com.  In February 2012, Bellamente was named to Ethisphere’s list of 100 most influential people in business ethics. 

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