Apparel and textile companies seeking to make their supply chains more sustainable have increasing options to adopt 'greener' innovations - from developments in organic cotton to software monitoring tools and organisations helping to establish eco-friendly policies.

Ron Watson, vice president of product management for US-based Centric Software, whose company is expanding into Asia, believes its product lifecycle management (PLM) system will help apparel companies operating there tackle sustainability issues. "Asia is really getting into this and as they start having to worry about compliance...sustainably is going to become an important part for them...they will be looking for tools that help them support them."

By tracking the exact content of the fibres and fabrics a company uses in its products, connecting this information through the entire supply chain, the Centric 8 PLM solution allows apparel companies to see exactly how changes to sourcing of materials would affect the rest of their supply chain.

When the fabric information is inputted, the system can show a table that breaks down the material into a set of different content, showing what percentage is, say, cotton. The breakdown delves down into the different kinds of fibres in a fabric and what those fibres contain, notes Watson. This means companies can easily and accurately ensure their products do not contain, for instance, any unwanted or unsustainable materials.

"Having access to the information that tells you what the fabric is made up of allows you to start reporting that and you can decide [for instance], 'No we can't sell this product because it doesn't' meet certain requirements' or maybe we can't sell it in a certain country because of that country's [import] requirements," he adds.

Companies can also track the progress of, and changes in, their own sustainability goals, he notes. "Because you know the volume of material you're using, you're able to track easily the content and percentage of sustainable products used. Maybe they want to increase the amount of bamboo fibres in their products, for example and track the reduction in cotton usage."

Environmental challenges
Some apparel companies are also changing their fibre sourcing policies and strategies as they seek to avoid using fibres known to involve certain environmental challenges.

For instance, Textile Exchange's latest Organic Cotton Market Report 2013 recognises Hennes & Mauritz's (H&M) efforts to use increasing amounts of organic cotton and notes the Swedish company topped its list of world's biggest users of certified organic cotton. In 2013, 10.8% of the cotton the company used was certified organic, a continued increase from 7.8% the year before.

Henrik Lampa, H&M's environmental sustainability manager notes: "We are very proud of this achievement and we have set a clear goal to further increase our usage of certified organic cotton. This is part of our strategic target to use only sustainable cotton by 2020."

H&M led the same Textile Exchange ranking in 2010 and 2011, and held second place in 2012. The company also ensures garments containing at least 50% certified organic cotton are labelled with a specific hang tag.

H&M also announced in April it would work with Canada eco-fibre advisor Canopy to avoid sourcing fabrics made of raw materials obtained from endangered forests. "By 2017, we will ensure, to the best of our knowledge, that we are sourcing fabrics outside of ancient and endangered forests," it said. The company will also support the development of alternative fibre sources and long-term conservation solutions for forests.

Another initiative involving Canopy is its 'Fashion Loved by Forest' initiative launched last October, says Nicole Rycroft, Canopy's executive director and founder. It involves working with companies such as Quiksilver, Lululemon Athletica, prAna, Zara, and Stella McCartney to ensure that the fabrics and clothing they're producing are not sourced from endangered forest ecosystems.

Finding more eco-friendly alternative fibre sources, especially re-using material, will likely become increasingly important for apparel and textile companies, notes Abby Dayton, US brand communications coordinator for Italy-based Aquafil.

"It's the direction the world is heading. As natural resources become more limited, you have to find ulterior ways to produce your product. It's extremely trendy right now to be 'green'...That's the only way you're going to be able to be around in five, ten years is if they alter their ways...not just from a consumer standpoint but also [maintaining] resources."

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