This post was written by J.D. Brady on behalf of the Case Foundation:
Few changemakers embody the Be Fearless mantra quite like Levi Strauss & Co. and its Foundation. For more than 160 years, the brand has implemented a unique approach to investing in causes. As a company, they have always strived to go first. In fact, they were one of the first brands to help fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic; their work force was racially integrated years before Civil Rights legislation was implemented; and the company was one of the first to offer domestic partner benefits. Levi Strauss & Co. developed “the code that launched a thousand codes” when it became one of the first companies to create a “code of conduct” determining how contractors must treat workers and the expectation of contractors to produce a quality environment in which to work.
Just last year the Case Foundation featured the Foundation as a Be Fearless case study. Led by executive director Daniel Jae-Won Lee, the Foundation makes big bets and causes they are invested in and was one of the first to set aside dedicated funds for an experimental, “innovation” portfolio. Each year roughly 15 to 20 percent of their budget is directed to potentially transformative projects and their leaders with great ideas.
In advance of MCON this month, Daniel shares his lessons learned at the helm of the foundation and how his team has worked to solve some of society’s most pressing social issues. We look forward to hearing him share his insights at MCON 2015.
CF: Part of your emphasis as an organization is improving worker well-being at apparel companies located in communities where your products are made. Tell us more about these efforts and what impact you have made.
DL: We have a longstanding commitment to improve the well-being and rights of people who make our products. Levi Strauss & Co. has invested more than $10 million in the past fifteen years on factory-based programs to enhance the health, financial security, life skills and awareness of apparel workers. But here’s the catch: when we asked how many of these terrific initiatives were sustained in the factory beyond our initial funding, the answer was resounding — zilch.
Out of this came a new business approach: Improving Worker Well-being. Our foundation is supporting efforts by Levi Strauss & Co. to foster the ownership and sustainability of these programs among key vendors in the supply chain, based on the premise that what is good for workers is also good for business. We recognize a lynchpin to factory ownership is measuring the social and business impact of these worker programs. Studies have shown that for every dollar invested in women’s health on the factory floor, there are three or four dollars of return in terms of improved productivity and reduced absenteeism. It won’t be turnkey or overnight success, but the company is committed to working with its key suppliers over the next five years to generating this business and social value – and making Improving Worker Well-being a way of doing business.
CF: What are the greatest challenges facing communities today? What are some ways the Levi Strauss Foundation is addressing these challenges?
DL: In the United States and across the globe, the rise of income inequality is one of the most critical issues of our time. It is striking to see both Democrats and Republicans speaking on this topic in the prelude to the 2016 Presidential election. The Levi Strauss Foundation has invested $7.5 million in asset building programs since 2007. These allow low-income people not merely to gain an income but also generate savings and invest in long-term assets like education or a home. More recently we joined SF Gives, a collaborative effort spearheaded by the anti-poverty champion, Tipping Point, and Marc Benioff, founder and CEO of Salesforce. The initiative takes a full-circle approach by bringing together companies from across the Bay Area – including many new players from the technology sector – to leverage their support, employees and influence to address poverty in the Bay Area.
CF: What is one of the biggest bets that the Levi Strauss Foundation has made since its inception?
DL: In 1982, Levi Strauss & Co. was among the first corporations to respond to HIV/AIDS (even before it had a name, when it emerged a mysterious and deadly virus) due to its impact on our employees. One year later, our foundation was the first to help fund the fight against the epidemic. More than 30 years later, this global epidemic is expanding in key markets like Russia, China, India, South Africa and the United States. Due to stigma and discrimination, those people and groups who bear the brunt of this epidemic are viewed as not worthy of having rights.
In the early days of the epidemic, our funding helped seed and grow many incredible organizations – first in San Francisco and eventually in over thirty countries around the globe. Today, the Levi Strauss Foundation is proudly supporting the human rights response to this global epidemic, an approach that receives less than one percent of total HIV/AIDS funding. Only by changing discriminatory laws, bad public health policies and stigmatizing cultural practices – and cultivating those groups most impacted by HIV/AIDS as advocates and agents of change – can we claim victory over this disease and cultivate an AIDS-free generation.
This is the first in a series of blog posts featuring speakers from MCON 2015. Check back to learn about more innovators and leaders from the private, nonprofit and public sectors. Also, be sure to tune in to the live stream of MCON on June 24th and 25th!