The wear2 yarn can be taken apart using microwave energy

The wear2 yarn can be taken apart using microwave energy

It is easy to underestimate the complexity of sustainability in the apparel supply chain. But while there are no simple solutions, industry experts believe improvements can come about through social change, collaboration and innovation.

A lot has changed in the last eight years when it comes to environmental issues in the textile and apparel supply chain. Back in 2007, the main buzzword surrounding sustainability in the textile industry was organic cotton. "It was the number one issue on the agenda," according to John Mowbray, joint founder of the Rite Group (Reducing the Impact of Textiles on the Environment), which was formed to provide an independent, industry-led platform to address environmental issues within the sector. "Everybody was talking about organic cotton like that was going to solve the problems of the industry," he told a Rite Group conference in Leeds recently.

But although brands were investing in organic cotton at the time, this "wasn't the universal panacea for sustainability in the textile sector", he explained, adding that "there were much wider issues that needed to be addressed".

First steps in this direction also took place in 2007 with the launch of Marks & Spencer's Plan A sustainability strategy, outdoor wear specialist Patagonia signing up to the Bluesign sustainability scheme, and the introduction of the UK government's Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP).

However, a lot has changed since then. In 2010, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) was formed, Greenpeace's Detox campaign to eliminate the discharge of hazardous chemicals from supply chains by 2020 was set out in 2011, and the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh killed more than 1,100 garment workers.

As a result, Mowbray said, there have been five key developments in terms of environmental issues since 2007: a drive towards greater product transparency; improved chemicals management and technical innovation; the potential for new closed loop production models to reduce waste; corporate social responsibility (CSR) pushed to the top of the agenda; and increased pressure on the industry through environmental legislation.

He also believes there has been more "competitor collaboration", with chemical suppliers, but also retailers within groups such as the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC).

Sustainability challenges

But sustainability within any industry, not just the fashion industry, comes at a cost. Taking the food industry as an example, it's quite staggering. A farmer making GBP900 (US$1,390) per hectare of wheat, using the average amount of fertiliser, will create GBP333.61 worth of damage to the environment, including water use and greenhouse gas emissions.

According to Professor Tim Benton, UK champion for global food security, the UK discards around one-third of the food it buys. "If we actually start trying to drive wise consumption decisions then there's an awful lot to be gained in terms of environmental goods," he said.

"It's not about making your processes more efficient, because you're still destroying the earth, you're just doing it more slowly. Somehow we've got to make sure that all of these things are embedded in our thinking about sustainability," he added.

And this, Benton believes, is something the fashion industry can learn from to ensure a secure supply of its key raw materials in the future.

But, he warned, there is no straightforward approach to sustainability, noting: "Ultimately, we have to recognise that there are limits to what the earth can provide." And "unless we have this step-change, and for me the step-change is partly about demand management, things are going to carry on business as usual."

One solution is innovation. Benton believes there is a need for more sustainable innovation such as in agriculture, maintaining ecosystem services, reusing water and reducing demand.

Closed loop innovation

In terms of innovation, NIRI Technologies is one company that has been working on a new textile technology which allows garments to be disassembled for recycling or repair, instead of going to landfill. The wear2 yarn is an electrically conductive composite thread incorporated into selected seams during manufacture, which can be taken apart using microwave energy.

It allows zips, buttons, fastenings and linings to be removed, with UK retailer George at Asda having successfully completed trials of the thread.

This technology, says Steven Neill, head of innovation and new product development at NIRI Technologies, creates opportunities for corporate clothing, which needs to be permanently labelled as workwear. Due to security issues workwear is often shredded and sent to landfill, but the wear2 yarn could allow workwear to be upcycled, he suggested.

Meanwhile, Dr Sandra Roos, researcher of energy and the environment, has been working on a project to improve the sustainability of the Swedish fashion industry. The four-year Mistra Future Fashion Project, which began in 2011, is based on integrating design, technology, supply chains, policy and the consumer to create systematic change.

"We want to actually make change in the Swedish [textile] industry, and we see that we need to change," she said, adding that change is "connected". If policy changes, so does consumer behaviour.

One of the lessons from phase one, Roos said, is that young shoppers want to be sustainable but they don't know how. "Knowledge about the consumer is really key if we want to impact them."

Additionally, phase one highlighted "big challenges" concerning the recycling of used materials, how leasing and recycling can be good for business, and how extended producer responsibility (EPR) would affect the fashion industry and society. For phase two, Roos said: "The aim is that we will move towards a circular economy."

Collaboration

That said, sustainability needs a collaborative approach. UK department store retailer John Lewis has around 350,000 different products in its assortment, of which a third are own-brand items. It sources from 53 countries, working with around 1,600 factories. Although this can fluctuate, the company's top three sourcing countries, where it has 70% of its factories, are China (641 factories), the UK (nearly 200), and India (141).

Highlighting the complexity of this, Steven Crawley, head of sustainability and responsible sourcing at John Lewis, said: "From our perspective, we have this globalised supply chain which makes it really difficult for us to keep a handle on everything we're doing."

To help with this, John Lewis partnered with Cotton Connect, a social enterprise working on pioneering a transparent, sustainable supply chain for cotton, to develop a programme aimed at increasing cotton yields among small-scale cotton farmers in India.

Focusing on cotton used for towels and bathmats, the programme has worked with nine villages in the Rajkot area of Gujarat, impacting 1,500 farmers. The project trains farmers on irrigation and natural pesticides, helping them to pick better cotton. They were also taught about child and migrant labour.

Over the last few years John Lewis has been running the project and the farmers involved have seen an 8% yield increase, a 3% more efficient use of water, and a 9% drop in the use of chemical fertilisers.

Separately, VF Corp, owner of the Timberland, The North Face and Vans brands, will produce 530m products this year, with 1.5m pieces shipped per day. The company operates 30 manufacturing facilities, which produce one quarter of its products, while the remaining three quarters are manufactured at around 2,000 of its first-tier suppliers.

Sean Cady, vice president of global responsible sourcing at VF Corp, said: "If you think about the diversity and complexity of a VF supply chain, no longer is it that anything happening in our supply chain is a secret."

He added: "We're living in this world and we're operating our businesses in a transparent world on instantaneous communications."

Through its Chem-IQ and Lee ReThink programmes, the company is making great strides in sustainability. Developed in collaboration with third-party organisations, including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Modern Testing Services, Chem-IQ helps VF to identify and eliminate potentially harmful chemicals from its supply chain.

Meanwhile, VF's Lee ReThink denim programme in China uses Better Cotton and works with Netherlands-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) Solidaridad to utilises environmental responsible processes for all phases of jeans production. As a result, Lee ReThink jeans require around 1,100 less gallons of water to produce compared to a typical pair of Lee jeans.

What next?

But where does all of this leave the fashion industry for the next five years? Well, according to Mowbray, EU legislation is "gathering momentum" and could even supersede some industry initiatives. What's more interesting is that, while he believes the supply chain's phasing out of chemicals will improve, the textile industry will not meet Greenpeace's goals on zero discharge.

There will also be a need to integrate consumers into a governance role such as the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) in China, allowing them to monitor air pollution in their area, and get in touch with government officials who Mowbray says "will do something about it".

Also, the Higg Index sustainability measurement tool will "gain new ground" as long as brands continue to back it; near-shoring will gain momentum in the garment sector; waste will become a more important issue; and there will be continued growth of national government initiatives.

In order to achieve a systematic change in the fashion supply chain, Roos believes the industry needs to change market and business models as well as consumer behaviour, improve lifecycle assessment methodology; establish routines for sustainable design; improve policy instruments; and establish a sustainable textile production. This, she explained, includes pushing for eco-efficient textile fibres and eco-efficient textile processing technologies.