Andrew Olah, CEO Olah Inc., Kingpins founder

Andrew Olah, CEO Olah Inc., Kingpins founder

Implementing an industry standard hasn't been high on the list of priorities for most textile mills for the simple reason that no-one is asking for it. But this is all about to change as pressure mounts for increased sustainability, ethical production and transparency across the apparel supply chain. And a driving force is coming from an unlikely source – the denim trade show Kingpins – as Andrew Olah, event founder and CEO of textile company Olah Inc, explains.

"There are two approaches to sustainability: one, a genuine commitment to change, and two, being dragged to the altar. The consumer has to be aware of which brand and retailer is doing which," states Andrew Olah, founder of denim trade show Kingpins.

For too long the wool has been pulled over consumers' eyes, he believes – adding that the time for change is now.

"There are two approaches to sustainability: one, a genuine commitment to change, and two, being dragged to the altar"

So now, for the first time since the event's 2004 debut, Kingpins shows will require all exhibiting denim mills to meet or exceed standards in corporate social responsibility (CSR) and environment and chemical usage. 

Why Kingpins?

The ambitious move is part of a bid to improve excellence in the apparel industry, and kicks off at the upcoming edition of Kingpins Amsterdam, taking place from 10-11 April. The show will host 100 exhibitors from around the world, with companies such as Unifi, Lenzing and Jeanologia among the list of exhibitors, as well as fabric mills such as Naveena, Nishat Mills, Absolute Denim and Kipas.

Olah says there is a lot of talk about "doing something" to bring about change in the industry, even among participants at the Kingpins shows in New York, Amsterdam and China. While organisers wanted to take this a step further and venture beyond just talk, it is a challenging move for a trade show given its purpose is primarily bringing people from the industry together. 

"We thought, well, what if we had a standard? A minimum requirement of behaviour to exhibit. We thought the Amsterdam show might be the perfect place to start."

The first required standard will address CSR, since Olah finds it "disappointing" that in terms of social compliance "virtually none" of the exhibiting denim mills have an SA 8000 certification (an auditable certification encouraging organisations to develop, maintain and apply socially acceptable practices in the workplace), or a WRAP certification (ensuring manufactured products are produced under lawful, humane and ethical conditions).

Going forward, in order to participate in the shows, exhibiting denim mills will be required to adhere to any one of the many industry standards that exist.

"I don't think it is a very big ask for people to have a standard. Whether it is a great standard or a mediocre one is another story for another day. The first thing we would like is for the people in our show to move from having no standard to having one"

"Whether it complies with the ILO or a human rights organisation, we are asking our mills to have a standard – any standard," asserts Olah. "I don't think it is a very big ask for people to have a standard. Whether it is a great standard or a mediocre one is another story for another day. The first thing we would like is for the people in our show to move from having no standard to having one."

Little attention on mills

Olah says when it comes to textile mills, they are not as closely scrutinised as garment factories, whose buyers pay close attention to whether or not they have a standard and whether they have been audited. 

"The first question when anyone goes to a garment factory is do you have a standard and are you audited – it is the first question when they open the bag of samples. But it is not the first question anyone asks at our show. The history of our industry is there has been a lot of attention on garment making but no real attention paid to the mills."

Speaking of his own experience selling textiles, Olah says the number of times he has been asked for a social compliance standard is "zero."

"Many people have asked for audits, but nobody has asked for standards. It is quite a different subject. To me the difference between an audit and a standard is somebody might come to your house to inspect if you are eating in a green way; or somebody might come to your house and inspect whether you are eating green regularly. There's quite a difference between the two."

But as people become more concerned with whether the apparel they consume is produced in an ethical and sustainable way, and demanding more transparency, he hopes introducing such an initiative will trigger change among mills. Industry trade shows, he adds, are in a unique position to simultaneously help the denim industry be more responsible and support brands and retailers in choosing best-in-class suppliers by requiring exhibitors to comply with the highest industry standards.

The requirement upon its exhibitors to have a standard, he adds, will make the Kingpins shows "more than just a window display."

"We think it's a very reasonable request. Why would you not ask that? Why would you want a show where people don't have it [standards]?"

Over-egging the pudding

One of the challenges Kingpins hopes to tackle by insisting that mills have certifiable standards in place is the practice of greenwashing. While many mills claim to be environmentally-friendly or to have sustainable production methods in place, this is not always the case, asserts Olah.

"Success is success, not the speed of success. The fact that we are already transitioning is an amazing sign of progress"

"There is a general mishmash of what everyone is doing. Often ideas of change aren't accurately represented from a marketing point of view. One initiative we are proposing is having representatives from Kingpins going round to all the mills and making sense of all the different messages, so we can write a post-show report on the most interesting developments from an environmental point of view.

"If you're a buyer, you walk around the show, and you're going to have every mill telling you what they do – for example, that they have a system that saves water. It sounds fabulous. But what's the difference between one claim and the next? What's true and what's not? What is it compared to? What is the benchmark? What did they do before? There is so much left unclear in a lot of the messaging. It's confusing and it's confusing at the highest level of a company.

"There needs to be a commitment to marketing and actual progress. Having a machine that goes faster is not environmental. Of course you use less water and everything because you go faster. But that's been going on since the industrial revolution. Taking one step that saves water when everyone else is doing the same thing is not really worthy of marketing."

Equally, he says, numerous tests that ultimately achieve the same thing can cause confusion.

"We all just want the same thing. We would all like to go to work every morning in clothes that are not toxic. But how many tests do you need to determine that? Does every brand really have to have a different test? Is that helpful?"

Small progress is still progress

The show's organisers have pledged to facilitate the move to a standard for potential exhibitors that are struggling to find or implement one. One way is offering advice on and connecting mills to the various certification organisations.

However, while Kingpins is keen to move mills with no standard to having at least one, Olah doesn't envisage the transition will happen overnight.

"Our mission is not to get this done instantaneously. Success is success, not the speed of success. We would be really proud to have this done by 2020. If it lingers on because some companies have issues, so be it. The fact that we are already transitioning is an amazing sign of progress that we are really proud of. Whatever happens from this point on is more than what was happening before.

"While I imagine some might criticise us for being slow, it is not the point. 18 months from now, when someone asks 'what did you accomplish?' we can actually smile and say 'this is what we did'. It would make me really proud. It's something for all of us to be proud of.

"And if its 22 months I'm not disturbed by that. As long as it's happening."