Levi Strauss & Co. (Levi’s) tells us the story of Braddock, Pennsylvania, a town hit hard by a staggering combination of factors: the collapse of the steel industry some decades ago and the continued economic downturn. Its population is down nearly 90% from its heyday in the 1950s, and has been called a “ghost town” more than once.

The stories Levi’s tells are compelling and beautiful–hope in the midst of squalor, danger and despair.

My favorite line? “People think there aren’t frontiers any more. They can’t see that there are frontiers all around us.”

Truer words were never spoken, and the message of hope and conviction borne on them is inspiring.

But is it sincere, or a cynical attempt by a company who has outsourced much of its manufacturing to Mexico to regain market share?

Levi’s doesn’t outright say that they’re singlehandedly responsible for Braddock’s rebuilding efforts, but they do imply that they’re a major part of it, and have been producing heartbreaking–and very popular–short films in support of this message.

Well, okay, a million dollars is a lot of money, and at least publicly, Levi’s is expressing a wish to help.

The opposition, if you will, has another tale to tell, which is that Levi’s hasn’t moved manufacturing operations there or done anything of substance beyond spending a little money and a little time (a week) to get some projects going. Their urban farm project is admirable and is one effort that could indeed be sustainable; however, Levi’s still sends the bulk of their manufacturing to places where labor and overhead are considerably cheaper–some commenters have applied the word “sweatshops”. Levi’s has attempted to offset that moniker over the years by implementing labor standards, but finally bowed to economic pressures some years ago and moved offshore.

Never having seen any of the facilities, I can’t comment on whether or not Levi’s maintains minimum standards in their offshore facilities, but what we can comment on is Levi’s willingness to engage its audience(s) at a visceral, timely and deeply emotional level.

Offshoring is a major contributor to many of the economic travails we now suffer–and it’s a vicious cycle: during an extended economic crisis such as this, who but the privileged can shell out $150 or more for a pair of blue jeans? So we demand cheaper goods, forcing companies such as Levi’s to seek cheaper sources just to stay in business. But the cost is high in other ways.

Levi’s is using social media and multimedia (and news media) very effectively indeed, hitting target audiences from many different directions; and in at least one case, they (or a representative, at least) express a willingness to pass along suggestions from commenters on their blog. One writes, for example:

Braddock is in its current state because American companies by and large stopped making products in America. Reinvention is great, but it would be even better if Levi’s were helping with that reinvention. What about helping Braddock residents with business plans, or helping the kids learn about technology?

…to which the blog moderator responds:

I know we’re working with Braddock Farms, which is educating youth interns and others about sustainable agriculture. That said, I’ll pass along your comment to those in the Levi’s brand who are involved with our efforts in Braddock. Thank you, again!

The suggestion about “helping” is one of many along similar lines…bring manufacturing back to the U.S., build a factory in Braddock and hire local workers if Levi’s really wants to make a difference, etc.

The publicity given to Braddock through the course of this campaign is phenomenal. People are apparently (according to some online comments) moving back into Braddock because of it, and pitching in to help. So there is some positive effect. Is it enough? Who knows. Is it sincere? Maybe. Is the campaign effective? Technically, yes. Materially? We’ll leave that up to you.

But if on the other hand this campaign is merely calculated to manipulate our emotions in a coldhearted bid to regain market share and deflect attention away from the fact that Levi’s still sends their manufacturing elsewhere, and the public perceives this, Levi’s may well end up worse off than they are now.

And where will that leave the good citizens of Braddock, Pennsylvania?

What do you think?

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