Some leading lights in the fashion business are trying to improve the industry's green credentials

Fashion’s New Line in Green

Posted on November 16, 2015 Published by Leave your thoughts

The global apparel retail industry is a $1.2 trillion[i] behemoth that is about as in-your-face as any industry can be. Yet most of its supply chain – and hence its sustainability track record – lies hidden beneath the surface, emerging occasionally when disasters attract the glare of publicity.

What comes to light is a highly diffuse industry where a cavalier approach to eco-friendliness is often compounded by a scarcity of data.

These problems need to be addressed from both industry and global standpoints. The environmental impact of this vast business is staggering. For example, China’s textile industry, which is responsible for more than 50% of the global production of fabric, consumes more than 3 billion tons of water annually. Its energy needs in 2012 required the burning of 110 million tons of coal.[ii]

The good news is that a number of forward-thinking organizations are developing innovative ways to improve the industry’s performance.

Some of these innovators were represented on a panel organized by The Earth Institute at Columbia University, New York, on November 11, 2015, to discuss sustainability in the fashion industry.

Teel Lidow, founder of the sustainable fashion startup Boerum Apparel, provided an insider’s view of the lack of information that is a barrier to change in the industry. When setting up his business he spent months cold-calling cotton growers to find suitable suppliers because “there is no database of farmers out there.” He was eventually helped by a trade organization in New Zealand.

If it’s difficult to find information on suppliers at this level, imagine the scale of the task deeper in the supply chain where there are multiple sub-tiers of vendors. Many are small businesses that do not have the resources or willingness to share trade information.

Small manufacturers earn wafer-thin margins and often spurn even common sense sustainability measures such as energy efficiency, said Patrick Duffy, Vice President of Sustainability, Manufacturing and External Affairs at Manufacture New York, a new design and manufacturing hub.

The paucity of information on sustainability means that it’s difficult to measure current performance let alone future impacts said Leo Bonanni, Founder and CEO of Sourcemap, a company that is doing ground-breaking work in supply chain traceability.

There is an urgent need for more investment and innovation in cleaner processes and treatment solutions. Pollution from dyeing houses fouls water supplies, especially in Asia. Demand for cleaner processes often goes unmet. Ruth Hsia Isenstadt, a designer and Co-Lead of the Sustainable R&D Team at retailer Eileen Fisher, described how her company is looking for a way to make wool washable without the use of chlorine. “But the technology is not there yet,” she said.

The disposal of end-of-life product is particularly worrisome. As Scott Millar, Director, Business Development, The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), explained, over the last 30 years or so there has been a major shift towards the use of synthetic fibers. But much less attention has been paid to how these materials can be recycled or discarded responsibly.

The outlook for sustainable supply chains in the fashion industry appears gray at best, but there are signs that it is possible to turn this mammoth ship.

There are producers who are trying to achieve improvements even in the absence of consumer pressure to change, said Teel.

Earlier this year Eileen Fisher went public with a program called Vision 2020 that aims to achieve 100% sustainability. For example, one of the goals is to sell only organic cotton and linen by 2020.

SAC has created the Higg Index, an open-source tool that provides a holistic overview of the sustainability performance of a company or product. The cross-industry collaborative effort that developed the index is now funding the development of new approaches to sustainability such as scalable recycling solutions for nylon and other materials.

A new fashion product label will be introduced in Europe early in 2016 that gives consumers information on how items of apparel rate on sustainability.

Manufacture New York, a fashion design and production incubator for independent designers in Brooklyn, New York, aims to help companies benchmark their operations in terms of sustainability.

This type of work is critically important, believes Bonanni, because filling the industry’s yawning data gap is fundamental to tackling the problems that make it a laggard in green practices. For example, armed with the right information – especially metrics that measure performance in key areas – buyers can demand that suppliers meet certain environmental targets if they want to compete for their business.

Reforming this mega-industry is not easy, but is imperative given its global impact. And perhaps just as important, the fashion business exerts a cultural influence that can be a powerful voice for change.

[i] Apparel Retail: Global Industry Almanac, Marketline

[ii] The Textile Industry Leaps Forward With Clean Design, National Resources Defense Council , April 2015

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This post was written by Sententia Partners

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