Industry leaders are beginning to look to the creation of new value chains

Industry leaders are beginning to look to the creation of new value chains

Driving meaningful change towards sustainability in textiles within organisations, within the industry, and with consumers topped the agenda at last week's Textile Exchange Conference.

"Materials matter most," declared Ed Thomas, Nike's general manger, sustainable products and material science innovation, at last week's Textile Exchange (TE) sustainability conference in Portland, Oregon.

Executives from Nike were among the 360 attendees from 35 countries at the conference's 12th edition, which also included representatives from Adidas, C&A, Eileen Fisher, Esquel, Fjällräven, H&M, MEC, New Balance, Norrøna, The North Face, Otto Group, Patagonia, Prana, PVH, REI, and Target Corporation; and from a number of ingredient brands, NGOs, and academia.

Global retailer C&A used the occasion to launch the new global strategy of its C&A Foundation, focusing on sustainable cotton and improved working conditions. The foundation's executive director, Leslie Johnston, also announced the formation of the Organic Cotton Accelerator (OCA), a collaboration of industry stakeholders with the goal of increasing the supply of and demand for organic cotton, and improving prosperity for organic cotton farmers.

Speakers explored the familiar challenges facing the textile and apparel value chain, such as sustainable and organic agriculture, water use and conservation, and the discharge of hazardous chemicals. The need to find sustainable alternatives has focused on solutions such as supporting farmers, developing restricted substances lists (RSLs), recycling textile waste, and the use of waterless dyeing, digital printing, and water-based printing inks free from PVCs and phthalates.

New business models
However, delegates were told it may also be time to accept that zero discharge is impossible to achieve. Industry thought-leaders are beginning to look beyond current solutions to ideas such as bio-mimicry and the creation of new value chains.

Mark Dorfman, MSPH and chemist for Biomimicry 3.8, which uses models from nature to design life-friendly materials and processes, presented a number of ideas. For example, "sharklet technology" will resist biofilm and bacteria much like sharkskin; fungi contain enzymes that will degrade lignin; and natural chemicals can be combined to create crosslinking on fabric surfaces, rendering them wrinkle-free without the use of formaldehyde.

System thinking and the recognition of the costs embedded in mass production are inspiring new business models. Dr Sam Moore, managing director of the Hohenstein Institute America, reminded his audience that agriculture is an ecosystem, restoring carbon though sustainable management. "There's a difference between pollution prevention and product stewardship," he said.

Moore suggested building more value into the cotton cycle by using cotton seed oil, much of which currently goes to cattle feed, to develop some of the surfactants, lubricants, emulsifiers, and fabric softeners needed to process cotton textiles.

Collaborative, local sourcing scenarios using forward contracts to stabilise raw material prices, such as those used by the South Africa Sustainable Textile Cluster (SASTAC) and New Zealand Merino, have created value by improving profits for both farmers and brands/retailers. In California, Fibershed helps link local farmers and artisans with markets for their products whilst using local waste streams to provide compost for the soil.

With offices nearby, outdoor brand North Face became involved with Fibershed via "The Backyard Project," using locally grown, naturally-coloured cotton and US manufacturing to develop a limited edition hoodie that will soon be available at retail. In order to keep costs down, the garment's design was generated by pattern cutting efficiencies.

Communicating to the consumer
Communicating "why it matters" to the consumer continues to be a prime concern. Brands such as Prana have sustainability embedded in their DNA; but "at the end of the day we don't want to lose connection with the customer," said Ellen Krimmel, VP of design and merchandising for the company. "Our goal is to increase sustainability while leading with style."

Kate Heiny, a sustainability and corporate social responsibility executive from Target, explained that for the mass-market consumer, "it's about me, not sustainability." Target's 'Made to Matter' collection includes natural and organic food, home, and personal care products; but the Target guest does not care as much about sustainable apparel, she said.

With more pressure on resources and increasingly volatile commodity prices, consumers may change their minds.

Trucost, a London-based research firm that measures and values the cost of natural resources to businesses, estimates that in 20 years we will need to feed, clothe, and house two billion more middle class consumers. Without adopting more sustainable scenarios, we will require 40% more water and 33% more energy to accomplish this.

"Value is not more for less," insisted LaRhea Pepper, TE's managing director. "Consumers can't make informed choices if they don't know. We need to tell the story better."