During the CERES conference earlier this month, Levi Strauss CEO John Anderson made an important announcement: Levi Strauss will begin to require their suppliers to go beyond compliance and support the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) through workplace policies and programs and community outreach. Using the MDGs as a measurement for impact, Anderson said, will help apparel companies and apparel manufacturing businesses create positive benefits for local communities—such as improved health and nutrition, or access to bank accounts and financial literacy. Support for local communities and economic growth can lead to industry stability and ensure a sustainable supply of quality products. Plus, it’s the right thing to do.

Many companies in other industries have long tied their local engagement programs to socioeconomic development objectives. However, I believe the announcement by Levi Strauss represents the first commitment by an apparel company to require investment and impact measurement by their supplier factories that are in line with the MDGs. Levi Strauss has called out most of the MDGs as feasible within the company’s and its suppliers’ spheres of influence:

  • MDG 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.
  • MDG 3: Promote gender equality and empower women.
  • MDG 4: Reduce child mortality.
  • MDG 5: Improve maternal health.
  • MDG 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases.
  • MDG 7: Ensure environmental sustainability.

This list seems daunting, and in the context of global development, it is. The MDG Monitor—a handy animated map tool created by the UN—illustrates exactly how far most of the world still has to go before the MDGs are met.

Still, for an apparel manufacturing company, having a meaningful impact may be easier than one might expect, mainly because the industry has demographics on their side. Sixty to 80 percent of workers in most apparel-manufacturing factories around the world are women—shoe manufacturing, electronics manufacturing, home textiles and furnishing manufacturing, and some food-processing sectors are dominated by female workers as well.

Several studies have demonstrated that women are the key to development: Female supply chain workers earn an income, which they can reinvest in their children’s health and education, in their own health, and in household food consumption. These same studies have also shown that women are more likely to make those types of investments than men, making cash-earning women critical partners in MDG progress.

Yet, we’ve seen through HERproject that too often these women who hold the key to development are disempowered by a lack of information and access to the services they need. To contribute to MDG progress, in partnership with Levi Strauss and other companies, women need better awareness of reproductive health, HIV/ADS, financial management, their rights as workers and as women, and environmental responsibility. They also need enhanced access to quality services like women’s and children’s health services, safe and nutritional products, and bank accounts.

Companies can lead the way in helping women who work in their operations and supply chains gain access to these types of information and services. Many companies are already making critical investments in women that can provide examples for others to follow.

Together with the thousands of women making Levi products around the world, we’ll be watching with anticipation to see what comes next.

Is your company thinking about the MDGs? What are you doing to help reach them?