Levi’s celebrates thirty years of supporting individuals impacted by HIV/AIDS
by Chael Needle
By World AIDS Day, two AIDS Memorial Quilt panels—one created in 1987 to honor colleagues, the other crafted just last year—will return to Levi Strauss & Co. headquarters in San Francisco for public viewing after a months-long tour of the company’s retail stores and offices. The panels symbolize Levi employees’ and the Levi Strauss Foundation’s durable commitment to AIDS awareness over three decades and their present vision of a future free of HIV.
Earlier this year, the new panel was debuted in Las Vegas at a field leadership conference for retail store managers. A patchwork of recycled denim, the 2012 panel displays the responses of Levi’s retail employees across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Brazil, who were prompted with the question, “What would the end of AIDS mean to you?” The responses are short—and sweet: More birthday celebrations; Avoir une deuxième vie (having a second life); Liberdade (Freedom). Beneath the panel, the aspirations of employees are shared in full.
The new panel then joined the older one in Washington, D.C., in July for its first public display, on the National Mall with thousands of other panels, before moving on to the nearby Washington Convention Center, where it was displayed for AIDS 2012: XIX International AIDS Conference attendees. The panels then traveled across the country to retail locations whose employees had supported HIV/AIDS-related non-profits in their communities in an impactful way.
This level of community engagement by retail employees is undoubtedly generated by the level of HIV/AIDS-related workplace education and support that Levi’s affords them. Starting in 1982, when Levi Strauss & Co. CEO Robert Haas, other company leaders, and employee volunteers distributed information about HIV/AIDS at the company headquarters, Levi’s efforts to educate about HIV/AIDS and assist those living with and affected by the virus both on the job and in the community have flourished. Levi’s has never shrunk from its initial commitment as the first corporate foundation to respond to AIDS. Over the years, it has arguably become the lodestar of global HIV/AIDS corporate responsibility.
If listed, Levi Strauss & Co. and the Levi Strauss Foundation’s HIV/AIDS-related activities and accomplishments would be thicker than a tall stack of 501s, so let’s just unfold a couple.
1985: Levi Strauss Foundation awards its first direct AIDS grant to San Francisco AIDS Foundation, which uses the funds to create a food bank for individuals with HIV/AIDS. The company and foundation have since contributed about $60 million in grants to ASOs in over forty countries.
1986: As host of the Business Leadership Task Force Conference on HIV/AIDS, Levi Strauss & Co. shares its HIV/AIDS materials and lessons with 150 companies. A few years later, the company holds HIV/AIDS in the Workplace conferences.
1995: Levi Strauss & Co. Europe signs an anti-discrimination charter to protect employees with HIV or AIDS. Ongoingly, it has advocated within the business community and the public sector to create social, economic, and legal support for people living with HIV/AIDS.
1999: Levi’s teams with LIFEBeat to produce the “Music with a Message” benefit concert in New York City on World AIDS Day. Levi’s has raised consumer awareness about HIV/AIDS in other ways, too: poster art campaigns in stores worldwide and the Red for Life campaign in South Africa, which featured a music concert and compilation CD as well as an initiave called “Condoms Everywhere” that helped distribute about 60,000 condoms to schools.
2001: During the first All-Employee Volunteer Day, employees create hundreds of safer-sex kits.
And Levi’s introduced workplace education as part of new employee orientation in 1988 and has, increasingly, supported programs and policies that support non-discrimination, destigmatization, and healthcare access both within its own company worldwide and in the global workforce.
In 2009, the company introduced a formalized HIV/AIDS-in-the-workplace education program for its employees worldwide and it was this model that Levi’s brought to the Washington, D.C., hospitality industry in time for the International AIDS Conference. Levi’s partnered with the International AIDS Society, sponsor of the conference, and other conference organizers to reach out to the hospitality industry with the educational program.
“What we recognized was that consumer-facing environments, whether retail stores, for us, or restaurants or hotels, have very similar traits,” says Paurvi Bhatt, Senior Director, Strategic Health Initiatives, Levi Strauss, about why Levi’s education initiative could be adopted elsewhere.
In a “simple, engaging manner,” Levi’s HIV/AIDS workplace curriculum covers confidentiality; how to support people while you’re at work; HIV prevention basics; and knowledge about where to go for testing and supportive services. “We made sure that an HIV message was embedded for each shift, every day for about ten days,” says Bhatt about the education cycle that Levi’s developed. “So by the time you were done, over a week or two’s time, you would get the basic messages on HIV, the basic information on resources on where you could learn more, and start a conversation inside the organization about HIV among coworkers and build some engagement.” Though the curriculum provides the informational framework, the content of the “classroom” is energized by these employee-riveting conversations.
Although the curriculum engages employees in all work spaces, it’s perfectly tailored for the retail and service industries, which are usually shift-driven and team-driven, and based on daily goals and key points that fit in with each two-week cycle of learning. “We spend most of our waking hours with people at work. So you’re hearing about [issues], you’re trying to support each other, and, especially inside of a store or a restaurant or a hotel, the strategy of what you’re trying to do as a business is happening in those four walls every day. You’re in the midst of working closely together on a variety of things in a really fast-paced environment,” explains Bhatt. “So, some of these issues come up just because you’re working so closely together as a team and the way you work is different than what we might be happening in an office behind computers.”
Continues Bhatt: “And that mix helped make us realize that, in D.C. in July, when 30,000 people who have great knowledge on HIV were going to descend on the city, the Conference was an important, business-relevant moment to connect the hospitality industry with basic information on HIV.”
Notes Bhatt, employees at hotels and restaurants could learn not only about the conference but its content—how to turn the tide against AIDS. They could learn about their customers, their community; they could learn about themselves.
Having retail locations across the D.C. metro area, in Georgetown and Tyson’s Corner, Levi’s has known that “the District is grappling with a high HIV rate, so it was not just business-relevant but it was public health-relevant for us to share this method with the city at an important time,” says Bhatt.
The interactive educational process, though quick, has fostered AIDS-related engagement among employees, notes Bhatt. The company saw that same sort of synergy happening in D.C., too.
The timing was prescient, with the travel ban on HIV-positive visitors being lifted and the International AIDS Conference returning to U.S. shores after a twenty-two-year moratorium.
“AIDS 2012 said this kind of education that was done for the host city had not been done before,” shares Bhatt. “This is the first time that the conference organizers…took an effort to educate the workforce that supports the conference, not just about the event but about the issues that the conference was aiming to address. The idea of HIV workforce education as a part of the checklist of things that a conference organizer could do was born this year.” Levi’s hopes this teaching and learning process will continue in Australia, host country of the next International AIDS Conference, and other regional conferences, as well.
Levi’s also supported AIDS 2012 in another way. At the conference, each attendee was given a denim shoulder bag, handcrafted by indigenous women in Guatemala and produced by Mercado Global, a Levi Strauss Foundation grantee that sells some of its products in select Levi’s stores. Mercado launched an HIV/AIDS awareness program in rural Guatemalan communities in August 2011.
The bag embodies not only HIV/AIDS awareness but the Levi Strauss Foundation’s two other areas of interest: asset building and workers’ rights. Levi’s core aspiration of sustainability was triple-stitched.
“As you can tell, just with Levi’s being Levi’s, the ideas and concepts of social justice are paramount for us as a company as well as for our foundation,” says Bhatt.
With the denim bags, “the asset building clearly comes through because it’s an important micro-enterprise effort…[and] it’s being done in a way that supports workers’ rights, in general,” she explains. “We’ve made sure that HIV education was offered to women, especially those directly involved with the bags, and their families as a condition of participating in this aspect of the project.”
Levi’s knows that an engaged workforce, whether helping create a new Quilt panel or supporting each other in an AIDS-conscious manner at work, is the result of an ongoing process. “We feel very strongly that education is the very first step that’s needed. And that you can’t just do it once. You have to do it over and over again. [Inspired by] the fact that a panel was created in the early days, very much an outgrowth of our empathy and true support for those whom we were losing due to HIV, we realized quickly that this generation [because of its enthusiasm] offers another opportunity to really grab ahold of our true aspiration to end HIV in our lifetime. And we can only do that if we’re all fully educated.”
Engagement has swelled, says Bhatt, in the United States, across the Americas, as well as in many markets around the world and has underscored Levi’s belief that a sustainable response is needed to sustain the lives of individuals, families, and local and global communities.
“If we truly are going to put forward the last panel, be among the last ones on this Quilt, then the only way we can truly do it is by ending AIDS and have an aspiration as to what that world would look like. That resonated very well with our employee base and, this being our thirtieth anniversary as the first company responding to HIV, it was really important for us to convey our message about what the end looks like.” And, above all, the end looks possible.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.