At a moment of unprecedented attention, investment, and opportunity for the emerging field of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG), leaders are asking: Who is best preparing their organization for the society of the future? Who is innovating today to meet decades-long environmental and social goals? Who is setting standards that catalyze their industry’s change for the better? Who is defining what bold and aspirational look like — and how best to advance that work in practice?

Enter NationSwell’s ESG Next, an exemplary group of investors, executives, authors, philanthropists, social sector leaders, academics, and field builders who are helping to shape business as a force for social and environmental progress, advancing — and even pioneering — the most forward-thinking and effective programs, initiatives, technologies, methodologies, practices, and approaches.

For this installment, NationSwell interviewed Anna Walker, Vice President of Impact and Issues at Levi Strauss & Co., on the unique strengths of an organization’s employees to inform corporate action, the undersung value of employee resource groups, and why coalition building is as much about the “where” as the “who.”

Greg Behrman, CEO + Founder, NationSwell: Can you tell us about your professional and personal journey to this field?

Anna Walker, Vice President of Impact and Issues, Levi Strauss & Co.: I went to graduate school for international economics with a focus on developing economies because I thought — very idealistically — that my path was leading me to work at a United Nations agency, that I’d make my contribution to the world through my work there. So while I was in graduate school, I got my opportunity to intern with the UN through the High Commissioner for Refugees, and it showed me that UN agencies are, by necessity, large, slow-moving, bureaucratic, and probably not a fit for me and my long-term goals. 

That’s why I made my way to the apparel industry: it aligned perfectly with my interests in development economics, and in helping countries moving up the development ladder, because it’s an industry that countries pursue when they’re moving forward on their economic development trajectory, transitioning from subsistence agriculture to labor-intensive industries. And Levi’s was the perfect fit within the apparel industry because it was so committed to supporting responsible practices in the supply chain and supporting workers there. 

Now, Levi’s is 170 years old this year. For most of its history, it owned its manufacturing. But in the 1980s, it transitioned from owned factories to overseas facilities. Employees asked the company, “How are we going to take care of the workers, and ensure the same level of care that they have as our own employees when the factories are owned by others and we’re just sourcing the production?” Because our employees asked our leadership that question, Levi’s was one of the first organizations to have a code of conduct for a global supply chain. Listening and responding to employee is a big part of Levi’s organizational DNA, and a big part of how I knew I’d found the right organization for me. 

Behrman, NationSwell: How do you define this moment in ESG? 

Walker, Levi Strauss + Co: This question is so fresh on my mind because we’ve been analyzing the challenges to ESG and so-called “woke capitalism” following the reaction to Bud Light and Target during Pride month — high profile cases of intense backlash that are such a part of this ESG moment. 

Levi’s is a fairly outspoken progressive company that really believes in using our voice to support the issues that our employees care about and that intersect with our business, and we used the backlash as an inflection point to brief leadership. We told them that we’re very cognizant of this changing environment, we assured them that we’ve taken some time to really stare down how it went for these other companies and why it went the way it did, and informed them of what we were going to do moving forward: remain consistent. Companies stumble when they try to change direction or appease a certain audience in a manner inconsistent with what they’ve said or done in the past. Consistency will be the key: it helps us adhere to what we can control and show up in the places where we can show up authentically.

Another big learning we’ve taken from the moment is that often, if you’ve already been outspoken on something, neutrality or silence isn’t going to be acceptable. Silence can be deafening, and stakeholders have come to count on you to be out there, to be supportive, and to be engaged. And sitting one out can often look like the wrong kind of engagement to them.

Behrman, NationSwell: What’s unique about the work you’re leading at Levi’s?

Walker, Levi Strauss + Co: I’m proud to say that through our long history, most of what we’ve been outspoken advocates on and built our social impact programs around — it’s all been rooted in our employees, rooted in what they’ve come to us and said matters to them, because it’s keeping them up at night or because they’re excited to take part in it.  

In the ’80s, we came out in support of employees dealing with HIV/AIDS, even before the disease had a name. We did that because employees came to us concerned about friends and family, and asked the company’s leadership to do something. They’ve held us accountable, and they keep us engaged. Because it’s real for them, it keeps our engagements from being one-and-done; they’re the reason why whatever we do will be far more authentic, genuine, and enduring. 

That’s what happened with our efforts around gun violence prevention. Our employees asked us how we’re going to support a safer America, which sparked us to create a threefold plan: first, we created the Safer Tomorrow Fund to give to organizations addressing community-based violence; second, we advocated to support efforts for common sense gun safety legislation at the federal level; and third, we engaged and informed employees to give them opportunities to volunteer and give, if they were interested.

When we started to build a broad coalition of companies working with us and supporting similar ends, it was slow-going at first. We sent a letter to the House of Representatives supporting the bipartisan background checks bill. And we only had three CEOs on it when we went to the House. But then, come fall of that same year, we had over a hundred CEOs on the letter when it went to the Senate. And last summer, when the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act passed, we had over 300 CEOs on the letter supporting Congressional action.  

We’re really proud to be a first mover, to be a bold mover that leverages its globally recognized brand name to build a big tent and create the safe space for other companies to join us in the advocacy. We’re going to be most effective when we’re using our brand to build coalitions and bring others along. 

Behrman, NationSwell: In the case of gun violence prevention, what helped you build such an effective coalition?

Walker, Levi Strauss + Co: It’s all about finding good partners. In the case of gun violence, we worked with Everytown and Giffords, and they’ve been really willing to roll up their sleeves and help to make it happen, to help to build the materials, and to engage and be there as experts when companies have questions. We’re not experts in gun violence prevention the way these groups are, so finding those partners that get the value of bringing the business case to advocacy is key.

As we’ve built coalitions, we’ve learned that it’s not only about who your partner is, but about where your partner is — especially when it comes to congressional advocacy. You know what members of Congress will support a bill, you know who is going to oppose it, and in the middle of all of that is the potential gettables you’ll actually need to make something happen. If you can find the companies that are their constituents in their home states, they’re the best advocates  to those members of Congress to make the case.

Behrman, NationSwell: How does Levi’s decide when to speak out or take action as an organization?

Walker, Levi Strauss + Co: Those actions all come to be through different channels. When the Dobbs decision on reproductive rights leaked, we were ready to issue a statement immediately because employees from our women’s Employee Resource Group (ERG), two years before the draft ruling leaked, asked for a meeting with our CEO and sat down with him to have a conversation on the landscape of women’s rights. 

Traditionally, ERGs allow employees from diverse backgrounds to find each other and deepen their bonds to one another, but they’re also an effective tool for surfacing to leadership those early signs of what’s on the horizon, and what your organization can do about it. Because that conversation happened years prior, we’d already had a lot of internal conversations and got our internal policies and programs in place to be able to move quickly. 

Levi’s CEO is Chip Bergh, and we do a monthly “Chip(s) and Beer” that’s sort of an ask me anything-style town hall with the CEO. That’s where a few of our advocacy and philanthropy actions have started from questions and concerns voiced by employees. Not only is it a powerful forum for directly learning what’s on employees’ minds, it helps you to create and maintain a culture of openness. 

Behrman, NationSwell: To which of your leadership practices do you attribute your efficacy?

Walker, Levi Strauss + Co: I have a smart, creative team that’s willing to try new things, take risks. I try to be the wind beneath their wings, I try to ask a lot of good questions, poke around corners, and support them to test, scale, and find what works and what fits. I encourage speed and smart risk-taking so that we always have time to course correct if we get it wrong. 

Really good leadership comes from finding really good people who are motivated, care, who are purpose and mission aligned with the organization and have a lot of energy about what they do.

Behrman, NationSwell: Who are the leaders who inspire your leadership?

Walker, Levi Strauss + Co: I’m inspired by Vicki Shabo, Senior Fellow, Better Life Lab, New America. Vicki is always advocating and innovating to make paid family leave universally available. I think of Michael Kobori, Chief Sustainability Officer at Starbucks Coffee Company, because he’s always willing to try new things, and he’s unceasingly supportive of his team. Worked along side him at LS&Co. And Hilary Dessouky, General Counsel at Patagonia, as well as Corley Kenna, Head of Communications and Policy at Patagonia, because they’ve been part of making some of the most sustainable business practices and best policies for Patagonia employees happen, and made sure to share those best practices with the rest of the business community.