Written by Madeleine Wong, B.S. ’22 and CRB Student Advisory Board member

On December 1st, the Center for Responsible Business (CRB)’s Peterson Speaker Series and the Berkeley Haas Dean’s Speaker Series hosted Chip Bergh, the President & CEO of Levi Strauss & Co. As a leader who believes companies must approach the pressing and difficult issues that exist in our world today, he exemplifies Haas’ defining principles of Beyond Yourself and Question the Status Quo. Since 2011, he has worked to bring more sustainability initiatives to Levi’s including WellThread, WaterLess, and Levi’s SecondHand– and has taken a stance on issues of gun violence, voting rights, social injustice and the environment. 

The conversation started with Dean Harrison introducing Chip’s background before coming to Levi’s and asking for reflections on his unique approach to values driven leadership. Chip reflected on the economic and social challenges 2020 has brought to the surface and how they have impacted Levi’s. This year has been an opportunity for Chip to reflect and go into listening mode after George Floyd’s murder. He recounted the beginning of his journey at Levi’s and remembers how diversity and inclusion was not high on his list because “the house was on fire.” Now, he sees how diversity and inclusion is intertwined with the overall success of the company. During the pandemic, Chip has learned how to exercise empathy especially in tough situations like having to let people go. 

Olivia Wasteneys, a first-year full time MBA student CRB Student Advisory Board member, posed a two-part question about Levi’s decision to go public and the short-term implications of that decision. Levi’s history as a family owned business shaped the decision and family shareholders still get 10 votes which helps the family continue to be seen as long term shareholders. During the IPO, Levi’s kept emphasizing its values. They wanted to make sure investors were on the same page about sustainability initiatives, gun violence, and that Levi’s will always be a values led company. When faced with difficult decisions, Chip believes that Levi’s will make choices that place them on the right side of history. 

Justin Hogenauer, a third-year undergraduate student at Haas posed the next question about instilling organizational culture at Levi’s and any ties back to Chip’s personal military experience. Chip shared about how his time in the army made him who he is today and shaped some of the top leadership lessons he has learned. Levi’s four values are empathy, originality, integrity, and courage. These guide their ability to do the right thing even when it is not the easy thing. Chip understands people are watching where he spends his time and energy because it shapes where company priorities are. As an example, Chip shared about moving their innovation center from Turkey to Silicon Valley where sustainable chemistry and waterless innovation were the main focus. This sent a strong signal about Levi’s commitment to sustainability and innovation. He also reflected on publicly sharing diversity data after George Floyd’s death and the internal conversations it sparked about equity and inclusion. He fully owned that there were still improvements that could be made with the right plan of action. 

Nicole Austin-Thomas, a second-year MBA student and CRB Student Advisory Board member, then asked about how individuals entering the workplace can best push for change. The first piece of advice from Chip centered around being selective about what company you work for and understanding their values and purpose. He also emphasized the importance of bringing your true authentic self to work because nothing is worse than having to be someone you are not. In his position of power, he knows of employees who have not felt this and uses his privilege to work on changing internally. 

Lastly, Sarah Hilmer, a third-year Evening & Weekend MBA student, dove deeper into asking if there are any people or institutions blocking progress, and how he is working with policy makers and employees who may not align with their values. Chip’s response was the belief that if you stand for everything, you stand for nothing, acknowledging that Levi’s cannot speak out on every issue. Instead, they have to use a framework of 3 pillars to help shape when to get involved: civic engagement (voting and gun violence), equality (racial justice, refugee programs, gender equality, lgbtq equality, immigration rights), and sustainability (water, chemical, circular economy).

Robert Strand, Executive Director at the CRB, closed out the night with some Q&A from the audience that addressed factory workers’ rights and sustainability efforts. Chip noted the difficulty  that most of Levi’s factories are third party manufacturers, but that their WorkerWellbeing program had been developed with factory owners and NGOs to advocate for and protect the welfare of workers. Together, they showed factory owners there was a business case for investing in factory workers. They learned that the issues varied by country but in every case, there is a positive return on investment for owners. Now, over 85% of these third party factories have implemented the WorkerWellbeing program. On the sustainability front, Chip acknowledged the climate impact of the fashion industry and shared how Levi’s secondhand program allows for the circularity of their product, green chemistry innovation is tackling chemical concerns, and hemp-cotton blended products are reducing water use. These programs are open source and make it easier for others to do the right thing and take steps towards sustainability as well. 

The CRB is hugely grateful to Chip Bergh and the Levi’s team for joining us, to our Haas students for their excellent questions, and the Berkeley Haas Dean’s office for co-hosting the event.

About the Author

Madeleine is a third year pursuing simultaneous degrees in Business Administration at Haas and Environmental Economics and Policy at the College of Natural Resources. She currently serves on the CRB Student Advisory Board and is interested in learning about how businesses can truly be sustainable in a capitalistic society by exploring system level change. Outside of her formal education, this 20 year old is continuing to work on her personal journey of understanding her individual impact and intersectional environmentalism.

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