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The power of pursuing not-so-obvious sustainable solutions

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Recyclable and biodegradable fasteners such as this one can help mitigate plastic waste in the apparel industry. Source: Avery Dennison.

This article is sponsored by Avery Dennison.

Bold, audacious practices and strategies — aka "moonshots" — and wholesale industry transformations have defined some of the most pivotal milestones in the journey toward a sustainable economy. 

When a company such as Google achieves a 100 percent renewable energy target, when BlackRock CEO Larry Fink advises companies that climate risk is investment risk or when companies (including mine) commit to reducing GHG emissions and reusing, repurposing and recycling waste to send less waste to landfills, there’s no question that these brawny actions will help advance a more circular economy and a more sustainable future.

Along with the pursuit of the daunting and daring, however, it’s important not to lose sight of the game changers that can come from less prominent, less expected places. Or how little changes can add up to big differences.

When you’re a global manufacturer sitting squarely at the intersection of the supply chain and working with stakeholders both upstream and downstream across multiple industries and sectors, you see the opportunity for profound changes as well actions that seem less pronounced or less impactful —at least at first glance. 

There’s meaningful value for any organization to tackle sustainable solutions at many levels and at many places within its value chain, pursuing big and small changes that can address obvious and less obvious challenges.

Take what we’ve learned about addressing waste in the apparel industry. According to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, textile waste occupies nearly 5 percent of all landfill space, while globally, the World Economic Forum reports that up to 85 percent of textiles go into landfills each year — "enough to fill the Sydney harbor annually."

There’s no one singular "fix" to the scope and scale of the apparel waste problem, especially because it’s multi-layered and includes everything from manufacturing and production waste to packaging waste and consumer waste. However inroads can be made if imagination and interventions are holistic — large and small — and consider every step and every element involved in apparel manufacturing.

There’s no one singular 'fix' to the scope and scale of the apparel waste problem.

For example, in terms of large scale innovation, digital traceability of goods and improved stock management technologies such as the ones we’ve developed have given brands fuller visibility of their product’s journey throughout the supply chain and access to data and statistics across different sales channels to better control inventory, prevent overproduction and limit the amount of textile and clothing waste incinerated or sent to landfills.

We’ve brought similar creativity and innovation to one of the smaller elements associated with apparel manufacturing, namely plastic fasteners that attach tags to garments.

The ubiquitous fastener may seem harmless enough. After all, you can hardly see it and you might not think it leaves a footprint of any consequence. But as we’ve come to realize, plastic fasteners have the dubious potential to be the "plastic straw" of the apparel industry.

Each year, about 80 billion garments are manufactured, and 90 percent of them have a single use plastic fastener. That means 72 billion fasteners are made every year for the garment industry. It adds up to a whole lot of plastic — the equivalent of 761,581,156 single-serve 0.5 liter PET water bottles. Stacked from top to bottom, those plastic water bottles would circle the earth more than 3.5 times.

That’s why our most recent efforts have focused on delivering recycled fasteners that minimize use of plastic. Our rPET fasteners are made from mostly post-consumer waste from recycled water bottles and recycled polyamide (rPA) fasteners made from recycled nylon carpets. And just this month, we’re launching a biodegradable fastener that breaks down within one year of exposure to soil microorganisms, without leaving behind microplastic or other harmful substances. Comparatively speaking, a regular polypropylene fastener would take anywhere from 20 to 30 years to break down, and depending on landfill conditions everyday plastic bags can take 10-20 years to decompose and leave behind adverse microplastics.

Is this a big and audacious innovation? That depends. Fasteners themselves may not have high marquee value, but fixing their woeful footprint sure does. Furthermore taking on less obvious challenges is a signal to brands and to consumers of the importance of really looking around every corner of a product or manufacturing process to address sustainability.

Game changers can come from the least expected, least obvious places. While we pursue our moonshots, let’s not overlook the potential of the little things that can make a big difference. Like the sustainability journey of a garment, many elements large and small can be examined, evaluated and, when necessary, re-imagined to reduce environmental impacts.

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