Purpose At Work: How Dockers Champions Water Conservation Through Its Value Chain

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Conscious consumers want to support companies that do good. That said, they are increasingly attuned to discerning between brands that pay lip service to purpose and those that walk the talk. A business doing an exemplary job integrating purpose throughout its value chain is Dockers. “Part of leadership is showing that you can achieve profits and principles,” Lauren Johnson, Global Head of Marketing for Dockers, tells We First. “It’s not only what you’re doing, but how you’re doing it.”

The way Dockers does it is by prioritizing people and planet from manufacturing to marketing. In fact, 47% of products sold throughout the world are made using the Water<Less methods. To date, the apparel company that invented Casual Friday’s has saved 3 billion liters of water and recycled 2 billion more.

Dockers’ Worker Well-being program also helps ensure education, healthcare and other essential services to factory workers and the communities that make their supply chain possible. Combining purpose and product starts with culture, Johnson says.

Dockers takes that same supply-side commitment to its people and water conservation into partnerships and marketing. The collaboration with Waves for Water is a showcase to its dedication to leveraging purpose as a pillar in business strategy. Dockers’ leadership offers lessons for conscious companies driven to Lead With We.

Connect purpose and core business

It’s vital that your purpose is aligned with your core business. It should act as a source of innovation and growth, rather than a burden. Dockers has been focusing on water conservation for over 10 years. “It’s needed in so many places. You’ve got the environment and sustainability. It’s also needed on the human side. So many people around the world don’t have access to clean water,” Johnson explains.

“Sometimes the most creative ideas come when you have the most constraints,” she says. On the supply side, Dockers’ product development team finds inspiration by trying to minimize water use. “They get creative. They tumble things with rocks instead of washing them for hours to make them soft.” Dockers also explores fibers with smaller water footprints. “Organic cotton and hemp use less water because they don’t have chemicals, pesticides and excess runoff.”

“The next question was why and how do we help maximize access to water while we reduce our usage of it?” Johnson shares. By translating the focus on water from internal operations to external communications, Dockers builds authenticity and trust.

Find the right partners

While Dockers knew it wanted to focus social good outreach efforts on water, the company didn’t have experience in that kind of work. “Acknowledge what you’re an expert at and what you aren’t is important,” Johnson says. “That’s why collaboration matters.”

Waves For Water’s founder, Jon Rose, had a surf sponsorship at Quicksilver. Some of Dockers’ high level staff used to work for Quicksilver as well, including Santiago Cucci (Global Head of the Dockers Brand) and Nick Rendic (Global Head of Dockers Design). That was the original connection with the organization, Johnson recalls.

“Jon and his team take the big barriers away and behave with urgency. They just go in and get it done,” Lauren says. “One water filter brings clean water to about 100 people. Waves For Water has this sense of creativity and an innovative approach. Something so simple can be an interim solution until you have a subset of infrastructure,” she says. “Jon’s got this great saying, ‘Do what you love and help along the way.’ I think that makes it accessible to a lot of people.”

Dockers committed to a three year partnership with Waves For Water and is coming full circle to its own operations. “The water access programs will start with our own supply chain, making sure those communities have access to clean water,” Johnson says.

By finding a partner with shared values and the unique ability to take action where it’s needed, Dockers is able to scale impact. What’s more, the purpose-driven initiatives further strengthens the brand’s core business.

Marry marketing and mission:

Dockers celebrates Jon and Waves For Water in its promotional content. “You unlock amazing storytelling when you partner with someone who’s so charismatic, who is so knowledgeable and who is an adventure seeker. You’re traveling to beautiful parts of the world. You’re connecting with people,” Johnson says. “That’s the content for our campaign and our brand marketing. There’s a realness where you get to see the impact happening.”

To invite consumers to participate, the apparel brand is running a filter match initiative. They will match consumer donations for $35 water filters via Waves For Water. Within the first week of the program, they were able to donate over 200 filters.

The key here is to be authentic. Marketing is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s one thing to donate money a single time, take a few pictures and secure a couple influencer shout outs. It’s another to commit to longer term involvement and focus on issues that are core to your entire business, not just your communications team.

Include employees in impact

Employees, like consumers, want to contribute to building a better world. In fact, purpose helps companies attract and retain talent. It can also increase productivity and satisfaction.

Dockers held internal meetings about the Waves For Water partnership, Johnson says. “It gives the teams a sense of purpose. They feel like they’re participating in something bigger than themselves. They also bring so many more ideas than I ever would have thought of.”

Essentially, by inviting employees to have a say in social good actions, you can strengthen your internal community and your external impact.

There will be challenges

While it is rewarding, catalyzing real impact requires overcoming obstacles. COVID-19 has presented hurdles for many businesses. Lauren says there are increased restrictions on getting boots on the ground. “Jon came to us recently with an opportunity in Liberia. He said, ‘I can get in there. They need to repair these wells that are over 10 years old. Will you support us going?’ We agreed. Part of it is about where we can get to and where there is the most need. That’s how we approach our waterless techniques as well.”

Another challenge in terms of implementing purpose-led initiatives is getting community buy in. “I think one of the things that I’ve learned from Jon Rose is that you can be well intentioned and drop off a bunch of water filters. If you don’t have the community embrace and understand it, they’re not going to use it,” Johnson says. It’s critical to connect with local leaders and earn their support. This helps build community trust, understand cultural nuances and increase the chances of long-term success.

Although Johnson says Levi Strauss, Dockers’ parent company, is values driven, it can be difficult to secure support and funding from within your organization. “Don’t let an imaginary hurdle stop you before you’ve even encountered it,” she advises. “Even by approaching the subject, voicing it, challenging the status quo to do better, you’ve started to change the narrative.” Starting the conversation and, eventually, getting leadership support is critical to successfully deploying purposeful projects.

Plan for the future

Just like fiscal strategy, purpose necessitates vision and planning. Dockers has made impressive accomplishments in regards to its mission “to combine passion and purpose in the pursuit of great products that inspire sustainable change.” That said, the company is intent on continuing to scale impact.

Specifically, Johnson says that Dockers is working to minimize waste. “A lot of brands, whether they sell food or clothing, can be very wasteful. We’re digitizing our sample process, to reduce the enormous amount of samples.”

While the coronavirus has been a global battle, there have been some silver linings. One of those is the increase in eCommerce, which Lauren says helps the brand communicate meaningful messaging to consumers. “People can become more informed and aware. It’s actually becoming more of a platform for conversation, values and transparency.” Dockers will continue to expand on digital storytelling while they also plan to reopen stores.

The company is leaning on its culture around California and sustainability and remodeling some of its brick and mortar locations. Some of the new stores will include repurposed materials. “We’re doing it through the lens of sustainability but it also gives us gorgeous savings cost-wise,” Dockers’ Head of Marketing says.

“Corporate social responsibility is not a program. It’s not a side team. It’s actually how you operate your business,” Lauren says. Uncertainty is a reality in business. While you may not be able to predict the next catastrophe or the outcome of a campaign, you can act on your purpose and values.

“There’s a sense of loyalty and trust, internally and with consumers, that comes with that.” When faced with a difficult choice, ask, “What’s the right thing to do? What’s the important thing to do? What’s the human thing to do? The answer should rise to the top almost immediately,” Johnson says. “It’s an invitation to revisit those values.”

CEO We First Inc, author NYT's bestseller We First, strategic corporate consultant and trainer, father, Australian, optimist.

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