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How companies can integrate a more sustainable materials strategy into their business

Almost any textile you can think of, from cotton to leather to nylon, has social and environmental impacts risks at every level of its supply chain.

In conjunction with the release of the Textile Exchange 2019 Material Change Index, GreenBiz has partnered with Textile Exchange to publish actionable insights for apparel and textile companies looking to source raw materials more sustainably. This article introduces the index. The entire series may be found here.

Almost any textile you can think of — from cotton to leather to nylon — has social and environmental impacts risks at every level of its supply chain: from the growing or extracting of its raw material inputs, to the processing it takes to turn those inputs into the materials we recognize. But when it comes to managing risk and replacing harmful materials with preferable ones, it can be tough for companies to know where to begin.

Through Textile Exchange’s Material Change Index (MCI), we track the apparel, footwear and home textile sector’s progress toward more sustainable materials sourcing as well as alignment with global efforts such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the transition to a circular economy. This week, Textile Exchange proudly launched the fourth edition of the MCI, which featured the voluntary participation of more than 170 companies (some covered subsidiaries) including major brands such as Adidas, C&A, Gucci, IKEA, Inditex, Nike, Patagonia and Tchibo. 

The MCI is a core component of Textile Exchange’s Corporate Fiber & Materials Benchmark (CFMB) program, which supports companies through their transition to preferred materials. In 2019, 85 percent of participating companies had a commitment to converting at least one of their key material categories to "100 percent more sustainable." Additionally, 38 percent of materials used by participating companies were from more sustainable sources. We are encouraged by the industry’s progress but recognize that there is a long way to go. 

That is why we have created this content series in partnership with GreenBiz. Over the course of 10 articles, we will surface key insights on how leading companies are integrating more sustainable materials into their portfolios. Later articles will focus on circularity, the SDGs and priority materials including cotton, polyester, nylon, man-made cellulosics, down, wool and leather. 

This article shares some high-level learnings from companies that have taken a holistic approach to their sustainable materials sourcing.

Wooden stairs

How can companies integrate a preferred materials strategy into their business?

Companies with a preferred fiber and materials strategy follow a systematic approach to integrating preferred fibers and materials into their business. At the most basic level, this means moving towards sourcing more sustainable materials, but ideally it also involves alignment with global efforts such as the SDGs as well as efforts around a transition to a circular economy.

The Material Change Index allows companies to better understand how their engagement compares to their peers. Here are a few overarching approaches that have allowed some leading companies to build holistic materials strategies that make a positive impact.

1. Commit to change

Organizations looking to move towards a more sustainable materials portfolio should start by setting measurable targets. These can be for overall materials use or by fiber and could focus on growing absolute volumes of preferred materials or increasing the proportion of preferred materials versus conventional. The most progressive organizations link their targets to global agendas such as the SDGs or the Science Based Targets Initiative. And they make public commitments to keep themselves accountable.

Material change in action: Since 2001, the Inditex Group (which owns eight fashion brands including Zara) has integrated four consecutive multi-year sustainability plans into all phases of the product life cycle: from design and sourcing to manufacturing and quality control to logistics and sales. Its most recent raw material sourcing commitments include that 100 percent of the cotton, linen, viscose and polyester used by all Inditex brands will be organic, more sustainable or recycled by 2025. These fibers constitute 90 percent of the raw materials purchased by the group.

"We have always conceived our sustainability project as a work in progress, a never-ending task," said Félix Poza, chief sustainability officer for Inditex. "It is necessary to increase the pace of progress — without that it won’t be possible to reduce (or not increase) the impact of the fashion industry. We hope that our commitment and management in this field can be a force for change for the whole sector."

C&A materials

2. Get everyone on board

Setting targets is a necessary first step, but the real work is in meeting them. To do that, it’s essential to secure alignment and buy-in from key stakeholders across the organization.

The most impactful strategies might require a longer-term pivot from the way business has been conducted thus far, so business leaders need to become change advocates and investors need to be bought into the change in direction.

Finally, the buyers and designers who play an important role in actually choosing more preferred options need to be set up for success. It’s not enough to merely task them with making more sustainable choices. They need to be equipped and incentivized to do so. This means rewarding those that explicitly and consciously factor sustainability value into their decision-making process.

Material change in action: Global retailer C&A began its preferred material sourcing journey in 2005 when it produced and sold 1 million pieces made from organic cotton. Fourteen years later, that number has increased to over 170 million certified organic cotton pieces per year.

The fashion retailer credits this scaling success to sourcing strategy engagement across all levels of the organization — a lesson being applied to increasing usage of more sustainable fibers, such as recycled materials and more sustainable viscose.

For example, C&A’s sustainability team trained merchant teams on how to buy organic cotton (including what certifications to look for) and used internal ambassadors to create excitement about the initiative across the business.

"Organic cotton brought a tremendous amount of pride and engagement amongst our employees and is seen as a lighthouse for our company values," explained Jeff Hogue, chief sustainability officer of C&A. "Every employee has the opportunity to contribute through their actions, whether it’s placing certified organic cotton into our collections or serving as an ambassador to our customers on the benefits of organic cotton." 

Tanzanian cotton farmer

3. Invest in collective action

When it comes to the raw materials sourcing stage of the supply chain, the issues that need addressing and the levers that can be used to address them are numerous and wide-ranging.

At this stage, it can be helpful to work with others to drive meaningful change. Top performing companies tend to invest in collective action alongside governments, industry bodies and peer companies, and share their learnings widely so that other companies can benefit from them.

Material change in action: In 2017, clothing supplier Mantis World pledged to shift all its production to more sustainable fibers by 2021 — and has achieved this goal two years ahead of schedule.

Early in its sustainability journey, Mantis World saw the value in partnering with industry organizations such as non-profit Solidaridad, which helped its family-owned factory become the first factory in sub-Saharan Africa certified to the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). Now, Mantis World is sharing what it has learned through Textile Exchange’s Pan-Africa Working Group, collaborating on a white paper targeted toward policymakers about the threat of genetically modified (GMO) cotton in Africa.

"This would not have happened unless several organizations — big and small — worked together, shared resources to create a piece of advocacy work aimed at government policy," said Mantis World CEO Prama Bhardwaj. "When it comes to wider global environmental and social issues, we cannot even define them, let alone solve them, as one business alone. Being part of initiatives where organizations come together, share experience honestly and learn collectively is far more effective."

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