The apparel and textile industry is continuing to move towards a more sustainable supply chain

The apparel and textile industry is continuing to move towards a more sustainable supply chain

In the past year, several developments - both new and built on previous initiatives - have emerged, suggesting the apparel and textile industry is continuing to move towards a more sustainable supply chain.

A key move was the publication of Version 4.0 of the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), released by the GOTS International Working Group in March. The new version was compiled with organisations specialising in organic production, textile processing and social criteria, and aims to encourage manufacturers to produce apparel from a minimum of 70% certified organic fibres.

This new version - which will become official GOTS policy in March 2015 - modifies rules on 'additional fibre materials'. These regenerated synthetic fibres may make up to 30% of fabric or clothing, provided they are processed in an environment-friendly way and certified. Other changes include bans on virgin polyester (as recycled polyester yarn is widely available) and angora (because of reports about unacceptable farming conditions of angora rabbits).

This initiative dovetails with recent moves by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC). Last October, the centre's report 'Revision of the European Ecolabel and Green Public Procurement (GPP) Criteria for Textile Products' recommended that the EU prioritises the development of best practice criteria for products and inputs that have had heavier environmental footprints.

This would mean prioritising certification of man-made cellulose fibres (such as viscose) and synthetic fibre production (for instance, acrylic, nylon, polyamide and polypropylene).

Meanwhile, the road map to Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) programme - a group of major global apparel and footwear brands and retailers working towards zero discharge from the industry of hazardous chemicals by 2020 - has released detailed informative material.

This spring it issued a 'right to know' briefing document on the public disclosure of actions relating to the discharge of pollutants and chemicals and other actions causing environmental problems. The note includes information on key regulatory bodies and a list of the limits on using industrial chemicals.

The document complements a benchmarking study and final report released by the programme last July that provided insights about current pollution discharges and future phase-out initiatives for certain chemicals.

Based on 150 analyses at 20 sites in Bangladesh, China, India, Taiwan and Vietnam, the report concluded that short-chain chlorinated paraffin, poly-fluorinated chemicals and heavy metals are still present in many textile and footwear finishing chemical formulations and processes at supplier locations.

Other green initiatives
Meanwhile, Shannon Whitehead, a sustainable apparel consultant and columnist for the UK-based Ethical Fashion Forum, in March launched Factory45, a six-month online accelerator programme that gives independent manufacturers the resources to start a sustainable business in the United States.

The process involves three modules: sourcing and manufacturing - connections to a database of US suppliers of sustainable fabrics; production partners; and sewers happy to work with low minimums of raw material. The second module looks at branding and creates specific avatars of the potential markets. The third module includes advice on crowd funding campaigns and other alternative pre-sales financing methods.

Knowledge of sustainable practices
So green initiatives abound - but the major challenge facing clothing and textile players wanting to green production and sales is that knowledge of sustainable practices still varies hugely.

"Whether sustainability is embryonic or mature in the textile industry depends on where you are in the supply chain," says Scot Case, director of markets development at US-based certification company UL Environment, a division of UL (Underwriters Laboratories).

"Large companies can take a holistic view of their supply chain and identify risk and opportunities that sustainability creates," he tells just-style. "The smaller companies in the supply chain generally don't understand the issue; they don't understand why the bigger companies are pestering them, and sustainability feels like a chore."

The other problem is the plethora of eco-labels that offer to rubber stamp or approve companies' actions as sustainable.

Case calculates that "there are more than 400 different eco-labels floating around out there," but believes that contraction within this diverse market and higher standards are making it easier for companies to pick out reputable certification companies. "We're seeing the maturation of the eco-label space," he says. "Charlatans always flourish during periods of chaos but that is changing."

The cost of certification is another issue. Dr Christina Wong, associate professor at the Institute of Textiles & Clothing at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, notes "many small and medium-sized firms are reluctant to be certified as the charges are quite high."

Sustainability initiatives
Meanwhile, attempts to reconfigure EU labels governing the sustainability of textiles are moving slowly. Rob Drake-Knight, founder of UK-based eco-friendly clothing brand Rapanui, says his plans for an eco-label based on household goods 'A-G' grading ('A' being very efficient, 'G' being least efficient) are now being studied by the European Commission's environment directorate-general (DG).

"They want to meet with us to discuss the idea further. Our system tells you how green the product is, while the EU eco-label just tells you it's met a certain standard."

Elsewhere, Dr Christina Dean, founder and CEO of Hong Kong-based non-governmental organisation Redress, in May launched her annual EcoChic Design Award, which encourages emerging designers to produce textiles more sustainably. This year's winner will display their products in the windows of Shanghai Tang outlets, China's luxury clothing brand.

Dr Dean says her award encourages three approaches: zero waste - where the creator must design an item from scratch and leave no waste behind; upcycling - redesigning old waste clothes; and reconstruction - using defective or unsold garments. "Reconstruction is possibly the most viable - there's a lot of resource material for it and it's available [cheaply] for emerging designers who don't have much money," she says.

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