Companies throughout the supply chain are under growing pressure to execute a lean, mean and green business model. Joe Ayling reports from the first ever RITE Group Conference on sustainable textiles and clothing in the UK, where delegates shared their best practices and ironed out their worst.

With around 80% of consumers saying that their buying habits are partly influenced by green issues, fashion companies cannot afford to ignore sustainability.

The hundreds of fashion experts at RITE (Reducing the Impact of Textiles on the Environment) Group's conference on sustainability earlier this month were proof in numbers that ignorance is no longer part of the agenda.

Moreover, the very formation a group created with the sole mission of driving ethical trading and minimising the negative environmental impact of production, is telling in itself.

"Walking the catwalk"
Joan Ruddock, UK Minister for Climate Change, Biodiversity and Waste, says: "When it comes to sustainable textiles, your industry is not just talking the talk but walking the catwalk. It is also encouraging to see that you thought there was a need to create RITE."

The branded faces of the clothing and footwear industry are aware that the consumer has started asking questions. Initiatives such as Marks & Spencer's Plan A, costing GBP200m (US$393.29m) to become carbon neutral by the year 2012, are merely the tip of the iceberg.

Indeed, cleaner chemicals, organic cotton, transparent labelling, recycling, and 30 degree washing are just as much items for the boardroom as the laboratories. In total, 120 retailers in the UK are now stocking organic clothing products, with garments made from hemp and bamboo also penetrating the sustainable fashion marketplace.

However, with 80% of the UK's clothing still destined for landfill, such initiatives are still in their infancy.

There is also an existing carbon deficit to bridge, but M&S, which currently emits around 1% of all UK carbon dioxide emissions at 6.3m tonnes, is already taking steps.

It has also started the production of an eco factory in Sri Lanka using harvested rain water and solar power for operations, and has launched a "wash at 30 degrees" labelling campaign closer to home.

Environmental matters
Levi Strauss, meanwhile, has also been reeled in by environmental matters, describing its jeans as 'blue on the outside but green on the inside."

Levi identifies a marketplace shift from what it calls "shaggy organic" to "supra sustainable". It uses organic cotton for the pocket bags of its Levi's eco range of jeans, which also feature a coconut shell waistband button and reinforced stitching in place of metal rivets.

"When it came to ethical trading in casual apparel before the year 2006, we were forced into many trade-offs in terms of taste, style, price and convenience," Alberto De Conti of Levi Strauss Europe says.

"But by the end of 2006 and into 2007, organic and sustainable clothing allows us to be cool with a conscience, and that is what we call supra sustainable. There is a combination of authentic ingredients, cutting-edge design and very effective marketing."

De Conti, director of the global innovation group at Levi Europe's Belgium HQ, has billed the next wave of greenness in textiles as "futureco".

"Consumers that adhere to the futureco movement are very confident, they know there own rights and make informed decisions." He explains that this is important for Levi's attitude towards transparency.

One company that has long been familiar with transparency is outerwear brand Timberland. Even in instances where its product is not green, the buyer will find out via the "green idex" it uses on products.

Peter Girard, senior analyst at Timberland, says: "We wanted to provide a comparative measure of environmental performance, both for consumers to understand and compare the product, and also for designers who are making those comparisons and choices every day."

Timberland's green index measures the chemical consumption involved in production for each item it sells, including information about climate impact, chemicals used and resource consumption, but not transportation.

"Most of what we are sourcing is from a very small area in China," Girard adds. "The transportation relative to the impacts of making the chemicals and products that go into our primary materials is actually a small factor."

Success stories
Other speakers at the event had similar success stories to tell. In textile manufacturing, synthetic fibre manufacturer Invista has halved the carbon footprint of its Lycra plant in Maydown, Northern Ireland, since 1990.

Patagonia's Common Threads programme to save materials from landfill in the US, meanwhile, is targeting a 100% recyclable line by autumn 2010.

Service providers like Dow Corning are also looking to produce more environmentally friendly chemicals, and Dow says its new Eco Softener product has the potential to reduce the amount of water required to process denim garments by as much as 30 to 50%.

Additional angles
However, for all the innovation that has gone into greener textiles, cheaper labour and globalisation mean that clothing miles are a fixture for the textile industries.

In addition, there are knock-on effects of apparel laundering and discarding old clothes and shoes that lie in the hands of the consumer, meaning they are also unavoidable.

The fast fashion trend is thought to be adding to the pile of discarded garments too, at least in the UK, and older washing machines often do not have the facility to wash at 30 degrees.

MP Joan Ruddock adds: "I know that you are already aware of the environmental, social and ethical impacts associated with clothing, but I want to highlight that all of these impacts are exacerbated by the huge volume of clothes that we consume in the UK.

"In the last ten years, the amount spent on clothing and textiles in this country has grown by 34% and stands at approximately GBP38bn.

"I know that's good for business, but the fact is it's having tremendous impacts. It's clear that many of Britain's shoppers have bought into the rather unsustainable idea of fast fashion; people want to wear what the stars wear and many retailers are rushing to provide it.

"Fast fashion is coming at a great cost, cheap to produce fashion items are thrown in the bin after being worn just two or three times, adding to the already enormous mountain of waste that this country produces.

"I am glad to say that there is more new thinking. In some sectors of the market, consumers and organisations are raising the issue of ethical trading and sustainability."

The formation of RITE gives the sustainable textile industry a forum to become more transparent. The sharing of ideas, from M&S' Plan A to Timberland's green index, and from Patagonia's recyling to Levi's futureco, makes for a pretty sustainable business plan.

The signs are promising that corporations have a reasonable balance between their collective environment and individual profit, but future development relies on trust rather than closely guarded secrets.

By Joe Ayling, news editor