There are two sides to sustainability: the environment and workers

There are two sides to sustainability: the environment and workers

Setting up a sustainable supply chain to produce ethically and environmentally-friendly clothing is not a simple task, experts warn. Indeed, they say producing sustainable clothing requires action and a change of mindset.

Whether an already-established clothing brand or a new start-up looking to venture down the path of sustainably-made clothing, deciding where to source materials, where to manufacture, how to monitor facilities to make sure they are compliant with sustainable practices, and how to transport the goods, are all challenging questions that need to be considered.

First and foremost, companies need to understand that there are two aspects of sustainability – the environmental issues, and the people side, explains Adila Cokar, founder and executive manufacturing consultant at the Toronto-based Source My Garment, an ethical manufacturing agency.

"Companies need to ask themselves what their most important value is. Is it whether labourers are treated well, making fair wages, and work in acceptable conditions? Is it the environment and cutting their carbon footprint back as much as possible?" Cokar asks.

"They do go hand in hand and, ideally, all companies looking to be sustainable would care about all aspects of it, but it's important to identify target goals first."

Self-assessment tools

Once a target direction has been chosen, Jason Kibbey, CEO of the US-based Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), suggests that companies use SAC's suite of self-assessment tools called the Higg Index, to examine the nitty-gritty details of their business before making any changes.

This online module programme can be downloaded for free and is simple to use: by entering data about their business practices, the Higg Index examines the different areas within a company, from design to manufacturing policy to logistics to end of life practices, and rates them regarding their sustainability and highlights areas that can be improved, says Kibbey.

Scores are anonymous and aggregated, which allows companies to benchmark their results against the industry and serves as a powerful incentive to strive for greater improvements and raise the sustainability bar.

"We try to use the brand module to get companies to understand the large number of decisions involving design, logistics, production, product, longer-term care [and] labelling that can impact sustainability. They need to look at every element and understand how impactful the choices they make are to people around them and the planet," he stresses.

To do this, getting assistance from sustainable clothing manufacturing consultants is important, as they can offer valuable information and honest guidance.

Organisations such as Source My Garment consider themselves a 'middleman', and can help companies with sustainable design, fabric sourcing, and finding appropriate factories for their size and business model. Industry groups, such as the UK-based Ethical Fashion Forum and SAC, can also be helpful.

However, it can be intimidating finding proper advice to make such a leap. As a result, Cokar mentions she is currently developing a business-to-business online portal based on fair trade values that helps brands source factories, have more control over jobs such as sample approvals, as well as providing a product lifecycle management tool that can break down the manufacturing process. She hopes the system will be launched within the next six months.

Getting started

In general, Cokar says it is actually easier for new or young companies, as opposed to larger established brands, to enter the sustainably-produced clothing market because they have a chance to introduce themselves to consumers as a sustainable clothing brand right from the get-go.

Existing clothing companies, on the other hand – where sustainability was not necessarily an original priority, or where sustainability track records have been tarnished – may have the funds and flexibility to change their image, but will need to spend far more on additional marketing to convince consumers that the transition is real.

Carmen Artigas, a San Diego-based sustainable designer and consultant specialising in integrating ethical practices within the fashion industry, agrees.

"If you're a young designer or brand, it's easier to start sourcing cleanly and with reliable suppliers. Bigger brands have to spend a lot of money transitioning to more sustainable fabric suppliers, manufacturing processes, etc. They need to show consumers they're going down this path," she explains. "When you're small, it's a defining moment to decide how you source and how you manufacture."

SAC's Kibbey notes that questions regarding transport (are you putting things on the boat, a truck, or airfreighting?), design (are you designing for end of use or durability?), materials (how and where are you sourcing textiles, are they environmentally friendly, do you know the risks that come with choosing certain materials?), are key to developing a long-lasting sustainable clothing brand.

Overall, he stresses that "there's no simple way of becoming sustainable; it's not enough to source sustainable fibres or pay your workers fair wages. It involves a commitment from the company to change how it goes about its business entirely and it's a completely different way of thinking."

Kibbey says that being sustainable can make a company better overall and end up saving it money. "It's not like by becoming sustainable there are no rewards. You can actually end up with a much better supply chain, more efficient manufacturing partners, and better quality products," he adds.

Click on the following links to read related articles:

Sustainable sourcing – Are shorter supply chains key to sustainability?

Sustainable sourcing – Is fast fashion at odds with sustainability?

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