When it comes to managing sustainability across the apparel, textile and footwear supply chain, many of the industry's leading retailers, brands and suppliers are already leading the way. And they are continuing to seek solutions, according to executives speaking at Prime Source Forum. 

Sustainability and sustainable consumption "is not a fad, it's here to stay," Edwin Keh, CEO of the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) and lecturer at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, told industry executives attending Prime Source Forum in Hong Kong.

"The challenge for us is that transparency is going to be very important in the supply chain, and to earn the trust of consumers we need to do this right," he adds.

But as Kevin Burke, president and CEO of the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA) also points out: "Sustainability is more than compliance, it's about being a good steward along the supply chain; it has to be a race to the top. The challenge is defining what sustainability means to the industry and how we can work towards it, collaboratively and globally."

Retail business case
The need for the whole supply chain to work together on sustainability is emphasised by H&M, Europe's second-largest fashion retailer, with a turnover of SEK140.95bn including VAT (US$22bn) and around 2800 shops in 49 countries.

The company launched its first restricted substances list (RSL) in 1995, and has since grown to become the world's largest buyer of certified organic cotton. In 2010 it developed its first Conscious Collection in which all materials come from more sustainable materials, while its latest initiative is moving it towards "closing the loop" with an in-store clothing collection scheme set up with global recycling company I:Collect.

The retailer's water conservation efforts led to savings of 450m litres last year, and globally, 27% of its leather shoes were made from LWG (Leather Working Group) certified leather (including 60% of leather shoes produced in China).  

All this is not purely altruistic, of course, but has a strong business case too, according to Lars Doemer, environment responsible, global production, H&M.

The retailer rates each of its suppliers with different rankings, which include parameters such as price, quality and lead-times along with sustainable criteria. This tool is integrated in its purchasing processes, with more and bigger orders placed with the better performing strategic suppliers.

"When we rate our suppliers higher they perform better in terms of environmental and social performance," Doemer explains, adding that 53% of all production is carried out by gold and platinum rated suppliers. "That's the real business case."

H&M also has ambitions when it comes to changing the industry's overall approach to assessment and auditing.

"Where we see the future is to move from facility verification to transforming society - and that's a big goal. But I think it's what we should aim for. We want to move away from checking factories; we want to create supplier ownership so that we can also focus on the bigger picture. So that's where we see the future for our work," Doemer says.

Sustainability course 
Another retailer charting its own sustainability course is Swiss supermarket chain Migros, the country's retailer with a turnover of CHF24.6bn (US$26.3bn) in 2011.

"We only buy ready-made garments - but feel responsible for what's happening along the textile supply chain," is how Daniela Suter, head of sustainability for near non-food/specialist shops, explains the company's focus.

Migros began its sustainability journey in 1996 with the launch of an eco-standard for its textile supply chain, which monitors clothing through every step in the supply chain from fibre through to the finished product, "as far as the cotton fields - for organic cotton."

It sets out standards to address critical issues such as bleaching, dyeing, printing, and enables full traceability of each article all the way back to the spinners - and guarantees that no harmful substance [carcinogenic, mutagenic, fish toxic or likely to cause allergies or irritation, or to be harmful to the environment] has been used throughout the manufacturing chain.

Buyers not only set out product criteria but are also responsible for selecting suppliers, with eco-monitoring to follow through an independent third party with questionnaires sent out to "each and every actor in the supply chain so we can avoid, reduce or replace any harmful products."

Around 65% of Migros's private label apparel is covered by the eco-standard - with the goal of growing this to 100% by 2017.

While Suter acknowledges challenges remain on small orders, short lead times and special finishes "but we are working on finding an alternative," she also says solutions include buyers working together to define a common colour card.

And such is the retailer's commitment to its sustainability that: "We are prepared to cut certain elements from the collection if we can't do them under Eco," she adds.