“Sustainable practice in simple terms means looking after workers, using quality materials, minimizing waste and making fair margins.” This statement from the Council of Textile and Fashion Industries of Australia (TFIA) does indeed put the topic in simple terms, which is helpful. But “being sustainable” is a broad, deep and involved process that its practitioners believe encompasses every facet of a company’s operations.
At IFAI’s 2017 Advanced Textiles Conference in New Orleans, industry experts shared their insights in a sustainability certification roundtable. One of the challenges is getting more companies to commit to a sustainable agenda. Lee Tyler, senior manager of Standards Assurance for Textile Exchange said in his presentation, “Don’t just focus on the 10 percent who are doing well. You need to get more people involved and then you can raise the bar.” Textile Exchange is a global nonprofit that works with members to drive industry transformations that support sustainability.
The process is involved and it can be overwhelming, especially when the commitment includes the entire supply chain, as it should. Scott Exo, USA country manager, Better Cotton Initiative (BCI), says, “In cotton, that supply chain goes all the way back to the farm. “A few years ago Levi Strauss did an impact analysis from the day the seed is in the ground to the day the garment is discarded. What they learned is that the biggest impact ‘bookended’ the supply chain.” This gave the company a clearer picture of how to address their ‘hotspots’ and improve their overall approach. Exo says that identifying hotspots (carbon footprint, water usage, toxins and so on) is a practical step that a company can take.
Every company is different, but breaking down the larger picture into these identifiable pieces will help to get the process underway. “No one pressing issue depends on the facility and the product – could be chemicals, could be water, waste, social compliance,” Ben Mead, managing director, Hohenstein Institute America says. “The actionable steps are to identify what their risks are, then identify who are the right partners to help them assess and then improve in those areas.”
On the other hand, “starting from scratch” isn’t necessary; any company can learn from what others have done. “There are existing solutions available and there is really no need for a company to recreate a new process – certification systems already offer expertise in these areas so there is a short on-ramp for a company to do something positive,” Mead says.
Tyler, whose presentation was titled “Voluntary Certification Standards 101,” outlined the organization’s standards that cover the “chain of custody” from the original source to fiber, trader, yarn, fabric, garment, brand and the retailer. With many sources, one product can have a complex chain, and that’s why standards are useful.
One barrier is that companies often don’t have much visibility of, or understanding about, their supply chains—“where the string leads in that supply chain and where the impacts are,” Exo says. “I would suggest that a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach to supply chain is no longer acceptable.” In fact, with the flow of information today, “there’s no place to hide,” he says, and consumers expect transparency.
SustainAbility is a company that advises businesses and does a survey of CEOs annually, which shows that sustainability is growing in importance. The CEOs surveyed “know that consumers, by and large, care, and momentum is moving this direction,” says Exo. “The CEOs of very large companies believe that sustainablility has very tangible outcomes that benefit them.”
Mead says the actions of these big players have a huge impact on the industry as a whole, “because others look to them to help set the agenda of where they should focus.” The Hohenstein Institute has a number of initiatives under the OEKO-TEX® umbrella to help companies meet their sustainability goals.
The actions of a brand and a retailer also have a huge impact on the decisions of the supply chain,” he says. “For example, a manufacturing company can be really committed to assessing and improving their production impacts in terms of chemicals, energy, water, social and they can make the decision on their own that STeP by OEKO-TEX® is the tool they want to use to do that. But if their customer isn’t aware of the value, or wants the information formatted in a different way, the manufacturer may have to make a different choice.”
A key benefit
Many companies are working hard to be proactive about improving sustainability throughout their supply chain because they believe it’s important to the success of their business. “The value of brands, in terms of their equity as a company, has shifted from physical, tangible assets from 20-30 years ago to where most of the equity is in the brand itself,” Exo says. “So they have to work doubly hard to protect that. Their reputation is their monetary value.”
Producers don’t always know what will address their customers’ questions, says Mead. “Manufacturers are being pulled in so many directions. However, those companies that are committed and proactively make choices are more likely to be successful,” he points out. “The leaders in the industry have taken many years to get where they are today.”
What’s important is to just get started in the process and make it integral to their planning. “The companies that are really successful don’t look at it as a standalone,” Mead says. “They incorporate sustainability in their innovation planning, and they try to implement a good set of practices from the very beginning. … They know that somebody will ask the questions, so [they] have to be ready to answer them.”
What is most pressing for a company depends on impact areas, which could be anything from worker safety to the chemicals used. Regardless, companies can help themselves by learning from others. “You’re not the first person to have this problem,” Mead says. “Find out what someone else has done.” Certification is taking the readily accepted approach to it, because others have already worked to solve it.
The U.S. government has also implemented changes, and there are emerging federal government-level criteria that have been introduced into the contracting process. The military has included some sustainability criteria into their sourcing contracts, Exo says, that require bidders to articulate how they are addressing sustainability. “It is indicative of the extent to which sustainable products are invading,” he adds.
Exo calls it “maturation” in the field. “It used to be the CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) department, but that didn’t necessarily address the footprint of the company,” he says. “That’s what the maturation is about. The choices the company makes have a dramatic impact on the world. Consumers now hold the brand accountable—period—for the whole supply chain. That’s a dramatic change.”
Janet Preus is senior editor of Advanced Textiles Source. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.