Levi Strauss Foundation’s Daniel Lee on Fostering Social Change

Levi Strauss & Co.
June 29, 2016

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel on innovation and social good at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, where creative professionals from around the globe came together to connect, share and discover.
Organized by the Holmes Report and WE Communications, the panel focused on how companies can harness the same creative spark used to drive long-term business results for social purpose. As leader of the Levi Strauss Foundation, I shared three ingredients that are mainstays to our efforts to “do the right thing” and foster pioneering social change – including support for progressive leaders working on the frontiers of challenging social issues.
A founder’s spirit….and the value of values
Giving back is at the core of our business—a pillar put in place by our founder, Levi Strauss over 160 years ago. While he enjoyed commercial success through the simple innovation of placing a rivet at the stress points of pants so they would last longer (which gave birth to the blue jean), his philanthropy is an equally iconic part of his legacy (it’s instructive that his obituary in the local San Francisco newspaper was headlined “Levi Strauss, Merchant and Philanthropist”). From supporting a local orphanage shortly after starting his business to endowing college scholarships for women in the late 1880’s, Levi’s influence extended well beyond selling products.
Institutional values have the potential to undergird bold, even gutsy action. Guided by the pioneering spirit of our founder, LS&Co. embraces four institutional values that guide everything we do in the marketplace and beyond: originality, empathy, integrity and courage. Originality means not being afraid to be first, even when it ruffles feathers. Empathy guides us to focus our efforts on those who are most marginalized in society. Integrity inspires tough decisions and a drive to be a guiding force for change in the apparel industry. And courage emboldens us to take stands on the social issues of the day in the service of living these values – even when this cuts against the grain.
Tension makes us stronger
Our founder’s spirit, coupled with the Levi Strauss values, animates a rich history of taking stands on the social issues of our time – often long before these positions proved popular. Time and again, we have seen company leaders, employees and family shareholders put the company, its voice, its reputation and its influence on the line.
These stands have made us no stranger to tension, but we believe this tension has made us stronger. In 1992, the company decided to withhold matching gifts by employees to the Boy Scouts of America based on its discriminatory policies around sexual orientation and religious belief, triggering a boycott campaign by a conservative organization as well as bags of protest letters. But company leaders stood their ground, taking what the New York Times coined “a hard line on the new diversity of society.” That year, LS&Co. became the first Fortune 500 company to extend health benefits to same-sex domestic partners.
Patience + Purpose = Impact
When companies take stands on the social issues of the day, they hold the power to influence how others think and act, raise the bar in the industry and even make history by championing equality and justice. But in today’s age of “innovation,” we see a learned prejudice toward what’s new and disruptive over what’s tried-and-true, but experience tells us patience and perseverance are handmaidens of any effort to foster lasting social change.
LS&Co. has “gotten in early and stayed the course” in support of the LGBTQ community and in the fight against HIV/AIDS — in the latter providing more than $60 million in grants to community organizations at the forefront of the epidemic’s response in the past three decades. We view impact not merely in terms of the dollars we commit and individuals we directly impact, but also in how we might influence and bring individuals and other institutions along – indeed over the course of decades.
In 2007, LS&Co. was the sole company to file an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief to the California Supreme Court on the economic benefits of same-sex marriage. In 2015, we helped organize a similar brief to the U.S. Supreme Court on the disadvantages of a fractured legal landscape with no uniform rule on same-sex marriage – and were heartened to advocate for social justice alongside 377 co-signing employers and employer organizations.
It’s enormously exciting to see so many brands embracing innovation and social purpose. As a 163-year old company that has stood the test of time, we know that courage, patience and even a sprinkle of tension can conspire to propel these efforts to greater heights.