Sustainability and eco-friendly production will soon drive garment industry sales

Sustainability and eco-friendly production will soon drive garment industry sales

The garment industry’s global supply network gives it a key role to play in leading the push towards sustainability and eco-friendly production. But the sector must work as an industry with an industry-wide organisation and an industry-wide standard if it is to avoid the errors of compliance, believes David Birnbaum.

Within the next three to five years, sustainability and eco-friendly products and production will become a key factor determining garment industry sales, for both suppliers and their brand-importer/retailer customers.

As end-consumers begin to see that global warming and other environmental problems directly affect the quality of their lives and those of their families, they will shun products which are perceived to have been made in conditions that pollute the planet.

Importers and retailers who dare to label their products in a misleading fashion will find themselves faced by scandals, recriminations, and a great deal of consumer bad will. 

The factory that pollutes will be in the same position as the factory that produces a poor quality garment or ships late or has high prices. This factory will be unacceptable to the customer.

The national garment export industry that pollutes will also find itself in serious trouble.

Governments in importing countries will see that the polluting factory in China enjoys an unfair cost advantage over the eco-friendly factory in the US and Europe.

The China factory doesn’t have to make investments to keep the environment clean, nor do his Chinese material suppliers, his electricity supplier, or his trucking company.

The importing countries will inevitably respond by imposing countervailing duties on imports from countries without pollution controls. 

Sustainability impacts sales
In fact compliance with sustainability controls will ultimately have a far greater impact on sales than either corporate governance or ethical compliance.

To the American or European consumer, forcing a 10-year-old child to work a 60-hour week in Bangladesh is a terrible problem, but, in the end, it is perceived to be a Bangladeshi problem.

However, polluting the air in Bangladesh is not just a Bangladeshi problem, because the air in Bangladesh does not just belong to Bangladesh. It is the same air that we breathe in New York and London.

Industry leaders such as Hanesbrands, Gap, Wal-Mart and H&M are investing considerable resources to ensure that they and their suppliers take the lead in the fight for sustainability and eco-friendly products and production.

These proactive efforts are an important first step. But individual efforts, even the best of efforts, could lead to a repetition of the serious problems our industry faced when dealing with compliance standards for social responsibility and workers’ rights.

This is what happened in the past:

  • Independent customer-imposed standards resulted in a duplication of time, effort and funds where each company had its own separate standard of compliance with its own checklist and audit, causing confusion for suppliers who were forced to simultaneously conform to an ever-increasing number of mutually exclusive standards.
  • Customer-imposed standards were fixed on a pass-or-fail basis which forced compliance at the lowest level, thereby denying any advantage for further improvement. Why open a day care centre or provide free medical care to workers’ families, when all the customer wants is conformity to a minimum standard?
  • Customer-imposed standards placed even the most conscientious companies in the position where they were unable to defend themselves or their suppliers against attacks, however spurious, by consumer groups or activists. Companies were afraid that critics could claim the retailers and their suppliers were colluding to fool the public.
  • Multiple standards with different audits resulted in unequal levels of compliance, where some very good factories were unfairly criticised for not being better while factories in other countries were left free to operate under sweatshop conditions.

Future challenges
To deal effectively with issues of sustainability and eco-friendly products and production, we must not only avoid the errors of the past, but also understand the new difficulties we face.

Problems of sustainability are far more complex than those faced when dealing with compliance.

  • Sustainability deals with a multi-dimensional matrix of inputs and outputs. Each material and each process — from fibre to finished garment including not only the manufacturing process but subordinate operations such as logistics — must be dealt with individually.
  • The effects of each material and process on different areas of the environment including air, water, noise and climate must be considered.
  • Standards must allow for both for incremental improvement and holistic change. For example, reducing carbon dioxide emissions can be achieved by an ongoing process where each step brings increasing levels of improvement. At the same time, new factories can be built with a zero carbon footprint. Although the second option is clearly more desirable, both options must be allowed.
  • Finally we must move away from the old rigid pass/fail rules towards a system which allows for incremental improvement. We must accept that at the present time, global efforts from all industries are in their infancy and that even minimal improvements should be encouraged. We must also realise that there is no upper limit to opportunities for positive change and that today’s maximum will hopefully be tomorrow’s norm.  

To successfully tackle compliance in sustainability and eco-friendly production in the textile and apparel industry, we desperately need to work cooperatively and intelligently.

Some important considerations and suggested steps would include the following: 

1: Create an independent non-profit organisation exclusively for the textile and garment industries which all stakeholders may join. These include:

  • Suppliers and customers;
  • Professional organisations with specialised skills such as CCI (Cotton Council International) and AATCC (the American Association for Textile Chemists and Colorists);
  • Leading inspection and auditing companies;
  • NGOs with specialised skills.

2: Create a single standard covering all areas of sustainability and eco-friendly products and production.

  • Bring in professional and internationally recognised organisations to lead the work, each in its own area of expertise;
  • Ensure that the standard is comprehensive and integrated;
  • Allow for incremental improvement, whereby companies can move up the ladder by using a 1-10 rating system and receive recognition for each improvement.

3: Create a single checklist and carry out regular audits.

  • Bring in the leading inspection and auditing companies to collaboratively create a single checklist. To streamline this process, the number of companies should be limited, possibly as few as two. 

4: Bring in the most professional NGOs to participate at every level to ensure that the sustainability organisation and the overall industry are moving towards excellence and compliance.

Action speaks louder than words

If we as an industry do not work together, we run the risk that despite our best individual efforts, we will corrupt the entire process to the point where sustainability and eco-friendly will lose all meaning – becoming mere advertising words on a hangtag.

At that point the entire industry will once again be branded as a bunch of ruthless miscreants who put profit ahead of humanity. We simply cannot afford a repetition of the errors of compliance.

If, on the other hand, we work together, our industry can play a leading role in the fight to restore the fragile ecological balance of the planet by controlling pollution and other harmful environmental practices.

The textile and apparel industry is everywhere, in the wealthy developed countries where many of the products are sold, to the developing and least developed countries where many of the products are made. 

At the present time, many people remain ambivalent about ecological problems.

Certainly there is a minority concerned and anxious to do their part. But there is an equally vociferous minority that believes the entire issue of pollution and global warming is a myth perpetrated by a bunch of radical eggheads.

The vast majority however are somewhere in the middle, mildly concerned, as of yet unwilling to make any real effort. 

We are the fashion industry. Our business is to make interesting and exciting products which consumers put on their must-buy list. 

Let’s face it – nobody needs another T-shirt or another pair of jeans. If we can already sell these products which no one really needs, surely we can sell sustainability.

Industry legacy
Whichever way you look at it, the future of the planet and what we leave the next generation is probably the most important challenge facing humanity today.

On the production side we are the largest industrial employers in the developing and least developed countries, the very regions where moves towards sustainability and eco-friendly production face their greatest opposition.

Western governments have tried to persuade governments in developing and least developed countries to work towards sustainability.

At the recent Copenhagen climate summit, the industrialised countries even agreed to provide funds – bribery by any other name – to developing countries such as India and China to allay the costs and effects of tighter pollution controls, but all to no avail.

We have all been to China, Bangladesh and India and seen the terrible environmental conditions both inside and outside the factories. The polluted air floating over Beijing and Hong Kong also ends up everywhere else in the world.

We cannot stand by and do nothing.

Nor can we use the excuse that nothing can be done. The garment industry has been more effective than any other industry in doing away with child labour.

Our methods might be crude, but they are highly effective. We simply tell our suppliers: “If you employ children, we will no longer work with you.” 

This is how Wal-Mart has done more to stamp out child labour in five years than the United Nations in 50.

Wal-Mart (and other similar proactive companies) is now making the same statement with regard to sustainability and the environment. Their efforts are an example of what we can do as an industry.

However, to really succeed, we must work not as a bunch of separate companies, but as an industry with an industry-wide organisation, an industry-wide standard, and an industry-wide process.

David Birnbaum is the author of The Birnbaum Report, a monthly newsletter for garment industry professionals. Each issue analyses in-depth US garment imports of four major products from 21 countries, as well as ancillary data such as currency fluctuations, China quota premiums and clearance rates.