How Lee Is Making Sustainability a Major Priority

by Charles Manning

Lee‘s senior director of sustainability, Roian Atwood, has a difficult and important job to do: bringing the output of this 130-year-old heritage denim brand in line with the needs of a rapidly changing planet in the grips of an environmental crisis. Fortunately, he is well prepared for the task, with a master’s degree in environmental management from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, 15 years of experience in footwear and apparel sustainability, and a track record of managing diverse projects and leading teams into an action-oriented, results-driven approach to corporate sustainability.

Lee’s senior director of sustainability, Roian Atwood

How are you implementing sustainability into Lee?
We get a lot of inspiration from our founder, H.D. Lee. 130 years ago, he set us on a course of innovative apparel solutions and timeless style. We celebrate this legacy today with our sustainability initiatives. We want to empower consumers and communities toward a stronger, more sustainable world. We call our platform, For A World That Works™, it unites our heritage of innovation and purpose with our responsibility as citizens of the world.

Was there a specific moment or event that acted as a catalyst for the decision to make the company more sustainable?
For 10 years or so, we’ve been making incremental changes toward sustainability: saving water in manufacturing, diverting waste from landfills at our distribution centers, and moving toward renewable energy. But it wasn’t until last year, inspired by what’s happening in the world, that our employees really started to rally around sustainability. That’s when we took a holistic look at our sustainability strategy and created For A World That Works™.

What has been the biggest change for the company so far?
Sustainability at Lee begins in design. When you start with purposeful design and a commitment to innovative solutions, the rest of the supply chain can follow that lead. Lee joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Jeans Redesign, which is helping guide design decisions.

What has been the biggest challenge in implementing these changes?
Starting to design pieces with sustainability in mind is certainly a new way of thinking, but everyone has really embraced the challenge. We are developing a sustainability scorecard, which will measure the sustainability performance of Lee products. The global tool will further empower our designers to be at the forefront of change, allowing them to view how Lee’s entire product line is progressing on sustainability attributes.

What goals have you set for the future?
We are currently in the process of setting global goals, using a variety of frameworks to inform our most material issues, including the Global Reporting Initiative and the UN Sustainable Development goals. We plan to announce goals later this year. Our team is working hard to make sure they are relevant, ambitious, and impactful.

What is something you think companies or the public get wrong about sustainability?
I think there are reasons to feel optimistic. Small changes really can add up, whether that’s a brand making changes like using 3D design, which at Lee has cut prototypes by 30% and saved thousands of liters of water and reduced our carbon emissions, or a consumer, who can be more conscious about the products they purchase, buying products, like Lee denim, that are made to last.

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