Fashion forward: Innovations drive sustainable clothing

Eco-Leadership

Fashion forward: Innovations drive sustainable clothing

loom_kongsak sumano_Shutterstock

Industry leaders convened last week in Istanbul at the Textile Exchange's 2013 Textile Sustainability Conference to share solutions to enhance the integrity of products and practices in apparel and textiles.

"The industry is addressing fast fashion and moving toward a closed loop where end of use does not mean the end of life," said Tricia Carey, vice chairperson of Textile Exchange and senior merchandising manager for Lenzing [German], a leading manufacturer of sustainable fiber. "But the biggest challenge is educating the consumer to decide about their purchases not by price, but by the environmental impact."

Unfortunately, the vast majority of consumers are far from appreciating the intricacies of environmental impact. Nevertheless, the industry is making strides to measure and lessen these effects.

An exciting new analysis tool

One way the industry is doing this is through a complex process called lifecycle analysis (LCA), which quantifies the impact of everything that happens to make and use clothing, including raw materials extraction and production; manufacturing; product packaging and transport; use; maintenance; and disposal or recycling.

"The impact of a single item is only part of the story," said Barbara Close, president of Princeton Sustainability Advisors and LCA practitioner. The length and intensity of utility as a denominator also can provide guidance on the relative impact of any given garment in a wardrobe.

"A high-impact item that can be worn often and kept for a long time may represent less of an environmental investment that a low-impact item worn once or twice for a short fashion cycle," Close explained. "Brands should heed the contributing factors to lifecycle impact by all aspects of their supply chain, product design and quality."

Brands and manufacturers can use the results of LCA to identify areas of environmental impact or risk, optimize product design and processes, and communicate their business and product impacts.

Tips for integrating sustainability into apparel

Some apparel brands that are proactively lessening environmental impact include Patagonia, Stella McCartney, Loomstate, Eileen Fisher and NAU. While these labels still lie beyond the budget of the middle market, they prove that sustainability can be woven into fashions, from fiber to finished garments. 

To follow their lead or at least get on track to mitigate risk in the future, "it's best for brands to start in the design and development phase," said Debora Annino, president of Common Project and the creative director who launched Matthew McConaughey's new brand JKL.

Annino lays out the following considerations for integrating sustainability into clothing:

1. Design: Seek out the best raw materials for fabrics, trims and packaging with the lowest environmental impact. Evaluate the impact of textiles in terms of water input or usage, energy input or usage, and pollution or GHG emissions created in the manufacturing process, as well as the use of renewable resources vs. non-renewable resources and land requirement or usage for fibers.

2. Manufacturing: Manage the manufacturing processes and controls from fabric to garment, including handling of wastewater, discharge, pollutants and energy use. Seek supply chain partners that have credible certifications relevant to environmental and social compliances and third-party monitoring of certifications. Reputable certifications include ISO 14000/14001, which assesses environmental and social compliance throughout the manufacturing process; WRAP certification, which looks at social/human compliance; GOTS certification, which takes into account the global organic textile standard; Oeko-Tex Standard 100SCS Global recycled content certification; and bluesign certification.

3. Transportation: Because most products are produced outside of the United States, transportation is a significant contributor of GHG emissions, environmental impact and the overall cost of apparel. The closer to home goods can be produced, the lower the impact. Brands should consider the best possible transportation routes, consolidation of shipments to containers, and rail vs. truck or air when moving fabrics and products from factory to port to warehouse.

Annino also suggests considering the human toxicity (carcinogens and or allergens) and eco-toxicity to aquatic life and the environment. "Coatings on textiles and garments that create performance enhancement, tactile or aesthetic appeal can also increase the toxicity of garments," she said.

Helpful online apps and tools

Brands and manufacturers can evaluate the impact of textiles by subscribing to EcoMetrics, an online tool that measures the EDUs (environmental damage units) of textiles, said Annino, who recommends a number of other tools available to help manufacturers and brands become more sustainable.

Made-By, a European nonprofit committed to improving environmental and social conditions in the fashion industry, has created benchmarks to evaluate the sustainability of textiles into classes, from least environmental impact to greatest.

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition is an industry-wide group of more than 100 leading apparel and footwear brands, retailers, suppliers, nonprofits and NGOs working to reduce the environmental and social impacts of apparel and footwear products around the world. Its focus is the Higg Index, which measures the environmental performance and social impact of apparel products. 

Nike, a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, has rolled out a new app called MAKING, which helps designers invent more environmentally sound apparel. 

Some of the most reputable brands such as Patagonia use bluesign certification, a rigorous auditing system that guarantees that products carrying the certification label are made exclusively of a combination of components and processes that are harmless to human beings and the environment.

However, there is not one unified certification system out there, and when it comes to suppliers, said Annino, "managing the multi-tiered supply chain is difficult to keep track of."

Most brands also self-audit using their own internal compliance teams to evaluate factories based on their company values and ranking system. Among other issues, this can threaten labor safety. Since writing about outsourcing injustice in apparel last December, similar disasters have cost more lives. More than 1,500 workers have died in less than eight months due to three horrendous factory tragedies, two fires and a collapse, respectively: Ali Enterprises in Pakistan, Tazreen Garments in Bangladesh and Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. In each case, said Judy Gearhart, executive director of International Labor Rights Forum, the factories had been audited by the brands, and in the case of Ali Enterprises, was even certified.

The future of sustainable clothing

In practice, "very few brands take all the steps to become more sustainable," explained Annino.

"Unfortunately, most of the sustainable brands are still niche brands or high-end brands, which are not always attainable for the middle-class fashion follower. But some of our large, well-known middle brands like Haggar, Levi's and even H&M offer sustainably made products at affordable and value-added price points."

Hopefully, more companies soon will start following their lead.

Loom photo by kongsak sumano via Shutterstock