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Artificial Intelligence AI AI & Web3 Deep Dive

Why Levi’s decision to use AI models misses the mark on DE&I

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By Ellen Ormesher, Senior Reporter

March 28, 2023 | 7 min read

The brand claims its decision to implement AI models will help improve diversity and sustainability, but critics say it’s a move dictated by the bottom line.

Levi’s AI models

Levi’s is under fire for using AI to diversify its models rather than pay human ones / Levi’s

Last week, Levi’s unveiled a partnership with Dutch digital fashion studio, Lalaland.ai, which will help the denim brand create customized AI models for its online platforms.

In a press release, Levi’s stated that the use of AI models would “supplement” human ones, increasing the number and diversity of its models in a sustainable way.

While the brand stated that AI models will “likely never replace human models,” it said it is “excited by the potential capabilities this may afford us for the consumer experience.”

“We see fashion and technology as both an art and a science, and we’re thrilled to be partnering with Lalaland.ai, a company with such high-quality technology that can help us continue on our journey for a more diverse and inclusive customer experience,” said Dr. Amy Gershkoff Bolles, global head of digital and emerging technology strategy at Levi Strauss & Co.

However, many have criticized the move, believing it to be a failure on Levi’s part to meaningfully embed diversity and sustainability into its overall strategy.

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“Levi’s decision to use AI models to increase diversity is like Ikea producing images of trees to tackle the global climate crisis,” Kian Bakhtiari, founder of consultancy The People tells The Drum.

“It reflects how many global brands perceive diversity and inclusion as a problem rather than an opportunity and the emphasis is placed on looking diverse and on performative activism, but few companies are willing to invest the necessary time and resources to make sure we live in a fair and just society.”

Shereen Daniels, author and managing director of anti-racist HR firm, HR Rewired, also feels that the idea will have been borne out of a desire to improve optics at as low a cost as possible. “They’re probably thinking about the change in consumer sentiments around representation in the world of fashion, and looking back at how they in the past they’ve over-indexed on white models who look a certain way,” she says.

“They’ve probably clocked the likes of WPP’s Consumer Equality Equation report, which says that demographics in the UK are changing and the number of non-white people will double to almost a third of the UK adult population by 2061, while their estimated annual disposable income will rise to £575bn, more than double what it is today.

“That will have been the foundation of this decision, not true diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I).”

Daniels goes on to point out that back in 2020, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and subsequent, global protests for the Black Lives Matter movement, Levi’s released a statement announcing “Black people deserve better,” and pledged to eradicate inequality within its own organization.

“But exclusion isn’t just about visual representation,” she says. “It’s easy to change the way a website looks by using more diverse (read, non-white) individuals to show how inclusive you are and to adopt AI to facilitate that. But it doesn’t level the playing field when it comes to giving opportunities to people they historically haven’t as an organization.”

Ultimately, experts tell The Drum, using AI models to increase diversity will only result in underrepresented groups going uncompensated, while the brand profits off its image.

As Thom Binding, co-founder of the Creative Communications Workers union says: “If “progress” means erasing Black and Brown talent with jpegs of people that don’t exist, then I think Levi’s need to ask communities whether they agree that this tech solution is helping ‘increase diversity’ in their photography because it sure as hell looks like erasing diversity when it comes to paying living, breathing diverse talent.

“Virtual models don’t have bills to pay, families to feed or dreams to fulfill.”

Many would also argue that the obvious solution to Levi’s embedding more genuine DE&I efforts into its marketing would be to diversify its talent. “If Levi’s really wanted to increase diversity, it should diversify its board of directors, remove barriers that prevent diverse talent from progressing and work with diverse partners and suppliers,” says Bakhtiari.

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But as Daniels points out, this doesn’t always solve the problem, as Lalaland.ai are in fact a Black-owned organization, “so we cannot assume that representation means individuals understand the connotations of racism and how inequality can be exacerbated by business decisions.”

She says ultimately, the move displays a low level of progress from the commitments Levi’s made back in 2020, while Binding adds it could have implications for not just diverse talent “but all types of talent eventually, as agencies and clients try to avoid paying real people.

“Let’s not beat around the bush, AI will be packaged as a cost-saving measure for brands. It isn’t about improving anything. It’s about doing away with more roles to save money.”

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