Fashion retailers are under growing scrutiny from consumers wanting to buy green and ethically sound goods, while sustainability pressures are also filtering down the supply chain to manufacturers. However, as Joe Ayling reports from this week's ASBCI Conference 2009, just being lean often means you're also being green.

The global recession has sparked restructuring or worse for many fashion companies. The streamlined high street operators that remain know that an efficient supply chain is imperative for post-downturn growth.

Many of these efficiencies constitute being lean - doing more with less - and the apt title for this year's ASBCI conference was 'The Crude CO2ST of fashion - addressing fashion's economic and energy challenges'.

Once a footnote in corporate strategy, the green agenda is being forced through by Government and consumers, with supermarkets like Sainsbury's, Marks and Spencer (M&S) and Tesco leading the way.

Their supply chain partners, like Brandix Lanka, are also rising to the challenge, meaning green and ethical manufacturing is another way to drive CO2 footprints down and corporate reputations up, while also being more cost-effective.

Commercial sustainability
Melissa Carrington, senior manager of sustainability and climate change at Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PWC), says that addressing carbon footprint throughout the supply chain is vital for commercial success.

However, green agendas are much more than a mere publicity stunt in modern business.

PWC finds that 72% of CEOs see natural resource prices increasing in the future, while 82% are looking to reduce energy costs through operational efficiencies.

In line with this, 60% are making changes in day-to-day operations, products or services in response to climate change.

Carrington says: "It's not a question of how do I remain commercial, and still be ethical and sustainable. I think it's about recognising that you can't be commercially sustainable or competitive in the long run without addressing these issues."

Ethical firm Continental Clothing, together with the Carbon Trust, has made a clothing label giving the the breakdown of the carbon footprint left by a cotton T-shirt during the raw material supply chain.

Continental Clothing found that most CO2 was emitted by farming, followed by manufacturing, chemicals and transport.

Measures to alleviate carbon footprint in the apparel chain range from using wood-based fibres, organic cotton, renewable energy, new modes of transportation, local suppliers and green packaging, but after-care of clothing also needs to be considered.

Indeed, research by M&S suggests that as much as 75% of the carbon footprint of a clothing product results from washing, drying and ironing.

"Although it's important for companies to focus on the carbon they can control, its also very important to think about design of product and how the consumer will use it," Carrington adds.

PWC says that being both lean and green depends on circumstances, but says to look out for 'win-win' initiatives that find a balancing act between cost and carbon, like changing warehouse locations and reducing packaging.

Other positive efforts to reduce carbon footprint, such as building eco-factories and low carbon products, involve larger initial expenditure but do bolster returns in the long-term.

Sustainability in action
One of the measures that UK retailer Sainsbury's takes to save energy is cooling down notoriously hot clothing areas by using cool air from refrigerated food aisles.

Sainsbury's, responsible for 0.5% of the UK's total electricity usage, said earlier in the month that 40% of its customers were now buying its Tu value clothing range, which was launched nearly five years ago. Fairtrade T-shirts are Tu's biggest selling volume line, with more than 2m snapped up last year.

"We've been encountering some quite unique challenges with clothing," says Alison Austin, environmental affairs manager at Sainsbury's.

"When you have a bulk area of clothing in a store it acts as a mass thermostatic radiator. It gathers heat during the day and holds onto it, meaning it's quite hot in those aisles if you do nothing about ventilation.

"So we have to recycle cold air from our freezer and fridge aisles, where it falls out, and pipe it back into the clothing area to cool it down."

Through this, and other green innovations, the company has reduced carbon emmisions by 20% between 1977-98, and is now looking to reduce emmisions per square metre by 25% by 2012, from a 2005/06 base.

Rival retailer Tesco, which sells the licensed Cherokee brand, has also found success selling Fairtrade garments, with 5m items sold in 2008 compared with 0.5m in 2007.

Abi Rushton, ethical and sustainable sourcing manager for clothing at Tesco Stores, says: "The final destination is a little bit unknown. We don't really know what sustainable fashion or clothing really looks like; what we have been able to do is identify some of the goalposts along the way."

Rushton adds that although ethical selling points are "nice-to-haves" in the value segment, the ethical clothing segment has been a growing customer concern for many years.

She cites TNS figures that the proportion of people who believe ethical clothing is important increased from 59% to 72% last year.

She says: "Ethical, environmental and Fairtrade is no longer just a nice-to-do there's a really solid business case behind it. If we're serious about providing customers with porducts and services they want then we need to be serious about providing this."

Supplier contributions
With major retailers recognising the commercial benefits of going green, their suppliers are seizing the opportunity to offset carbon emmisions further down the supply chain too.
 
A prime example is Brandix, the Sri Lankan firm supplying the likes of M&S, Victoria's Secret and Next with garments using its ethical and green selling points.

Brandix' 130,000 square feet Eco Centre, opened by Sir Suart Rose a year ago, is adorned with indoor plants, lit by beaming skylights, and harvests rainwater for supplies - perhaps representing the future of apparel manufacturing.

Indeed, Brandix is aiming to reduce its carbon footprint by 30% by 2012, and many other Asian manufacturers are likely to adopt similar green practices to boost exports.

Speaking at the conference in Rugby, Aji J Johnpillai, executive director of Brandix Lanka, says: "It didn't happen overnight. The conversion took over nine months, having started off by gathering 1,700 associates in our garden one July afternoon in 2007 and convincing them that green is the way to go."

Therefore, the ripple effect of ethical consumers is being felt throughout the clothing supply chain, and amplified by the need for energy savings and business efficiencies.
 
For the optimist, this year's ASBCI Conference may mark the point where the UK clothing industry moved on from the worry of economic uncertainty and planned for a greener future.

And even for the pessimistic, the streamlining of the UK high street and projected higher energy costs will at least curtail the impact of fashion on the environment.

By Joe Ayling, news editor.