Monthly Briefing

Learning from Levi’s: By taking a principled stand, businesses show society what is possible

by David Logan, co-founder of Corporate Citizenship

The reality of business life, is that if you run a company, you cannot avoid “politics”.

In its broadest sense, politics is about how we live. Running a business means you have an element of power in society. Businesses exercise this power through who they hire, fire, buy from and trade with around the world. As a result, even if businesses avoid party politics in the narrow sense, they impact society in ways that are culturally sensitive and are “political” in the broadest sense.

But businesses are usually very conflict-averse. They avoid party politics like the plague, and largely don’t want their brand associated with campaigns and causes that are seen as divisive in society. Whatever the business leadership might personally think, they want to remain apart from political debates if they can.

Sometimes, however, political debates cannot be avoided. Indeed, not choosing a point of view and trying to stay neutral, may be seen as a political statement in itself.

When my old employer, Levi Strauss & Co, was expanding its manufacturing plants in the southern states of America in the 1950s, segregation was normal. The company had to decide whether or not to go along with the prevailing attitudes against hiring African Americans. Indeed in some southern states, segregation was supported by law and most public, non-profit and private organisations were firmly segregated.

Like a lot of business people in these circumstances, the San Francisco-based leadership of the company worried about imposing its values on others, by taking a stand against segregation. In his book “Levi’s”[i], Ed Cray quotes then CEO Peter Haas as saying, “We just didn’t know if it was right to impose our views on these small southern towns.” This remains a real concern for business people in today’s global economy, where companies trade in many cultures with very different values.

However, Haas and his production manager, Paul Glasgow, engaged closely with community leaders and employees in Blackstone, Virginia. Glasgow is quoted as saying, “We told them we didn’t have to do it – equal employment opportunity wasn’t law yet – but we felt a social responsibility, felt it was morally right and we were going to do it.” The result was that the first plant was integrated, with only one employee quitting. The company also achieved a broader base of recruits, helping the plant to eventually become very successful. Integrated workplaces became the norm for all future Levi’s plants. Without making any overtly political statements, Levi’s made a point to wider society about what is possible.

Levi’s had the courage to take on one of the most contentious “political” issues in American life in the 1950s. In the early 1980s in San Francisco, Levi’s again took a stand on another contentious topic, HIV/AIDS. What can be learnt from these examples, is that if companies are to take a stand on societal or “political” issues, having a close connection with employees and other stakeholders is vital. Understanding the views and interests of stakeholders can legitimise and help guide a company’s response to the issues.

Levi’s made no PR hype about its various stands, and consequently avoided being embroiled in a harmful “political” debate. The company did the right thing for the right reasons, and let its actions speak for themselves.

[1] Cray, Ed (1978) Levi’s, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston Mass
Image Source: Levi’s 501 by Blake Burkhart is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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