Chip Bergh is committed to better leveling the playing field for black and brown people at Levi Strauss & Co.
In an interview with The Atlantic during a presentation Tuesday afternoon entitled “The Work Ahead: Business Confronts the COVID-19 Challenge,” the chief executive officer of the jeans giant said he is “personally committed” to doing his part to abolish what he sees as “systemic racism” in the U.S.
Although Levi’s has a long legacy of “standing up for social justice and equal rights,” Bergh admitted, “our house is not in order.” As a result, Levi’s is “looking at a range of different options,” and “setting specific targets” for change within its organization.
That includes moving more black employees into leadership roles, seeking to purchase more from black- and POC-owned businesses, and adding a black person to its board of directors, Bergh said. Although all of these initiatives are works in progress, Bergh said he is “very committed” to making them happen.
Bergh said at Levi’s today, 19 percent of employees in the U.S. are black, but that includes those who work at its retail stores and distribution centers. The number of management-level leaders is only 5 percent, which Bergh says is not acceptable. “What are we going to do to fill the pipeline?” he asked. One way is to recruit employees at historically black colleges and universities, an initiative started last year.
Earlier, Bergh wrote an open letter to employees against the “deep-rooted racism that is our nation’s most shameful legacy.” He said beyond the “shocking” videos that have fueled the protests, there is an “implicit bias and quiet discrimination that happens every day.”
Bergh said Levi’s will donate a $100,000 grant to Live Free, led by Pastor Mike McBride, which works to curb gun violence and promote racial and economic justice, and another $100,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union for criminal reform and racial justice.
At the Atlantic event, Bergh said, most recently, Levi’s has been a proponent of gun violence prevention, an issue that disproportionately impacts black and brown communities, and has committed $1 million to organizations focused on that issue. The company has also worked to “get out the vote” — issues it will continue to support.
“If the number of people who have gone out and protested actually voted at election time, maybe we can start making real change here.” He said Americans need to “hold leaders accountable” at all levels, both national and local. Local officials, he said, control the police and determine how much city, county and state dollars are earmarked for social justice.
Turning to the issue of the pandemic, Bergh said around 40 percent of the company’s 220 U.S. stores have been reopened, a number that would have been higher except some 20 units had to close as a result of the protests last weekend.
At the stores that have reopened, Bergh said consumers are coming in, “determined to shop. They have something they want to buy, they’re not coming in to browse. Conversion is very high, units per purchase are higher than normal. People are in and out pretty quickly.” And although the level of business “is not where it was pre-COVID-19,” Bergh said looking at China, where stores have been open for two months, and “comping positive,” he’s hopeful about a U.S. rebound.
Even so, Bergh believes the pandemic is going to dramatically reshape the retail industry and consumer behavior in the future. There will be fewer people coming into stores as they opt to shop online, and the improved results of e-commerce will be “sticky.” He said since the pandemic, he’s been buying all his groceries online and “I don’t know if I’m ever going to go to a grocery store again.”
If e-commerce continues to be a popular alternative for shoppers, compressing growth that would have otherwise taken 10 years into months, it may ultimately impact the company’s store count. The pandemic is giving the company the opportunity to upgrade locations and renegotiate leases, and Bergh said brick-and-mortar stores remain an important part of the company’s strategy going forward.
But he sees e-commerce continuing to grow. “We’re doubling down on our e-commerce business, which has been the fastest-growing part of our business for several years,” he said. “And it is going to be increasingly more important going forward.”