How Green Is My Product Line? Measuring Sustainability Success

What is more vital to the survival of an apparel manufacturer or retailer today: commitment to environmental consciousness or keeping production costs low? Five years ago, the answer would have been strongly in favor of being green. Today, amid global debt crises and the rising costs of raw goods, labor and fuel, the emphasis has for many shifted towards the economic from the environmental. Perhaps a better question is: Can an apparel manufacturer or retailer be green while remaining in the black? The answer is “yes,” when a thoughtful, long-term vision fuels the actions.

Prior to 2010, U.S. consumers had enjoyed 15 years of deflationary apparel pricing. Big box retailers attracted an increasingly diverse consumer base, fueled by low prices for apparel staples and the addition of specialty lines by popular, high-end designers and celebrities. Marketers in the highly competitive apparel category seized upon being “green” as a saleable point of brand differentiation. Low-priced and high street brands began trumpeting new and niche ‘sustainable’ fibers within their mix.

The challenges arose, however, when these sustainable fibers proved unsustainable in cost, processing or both. Bamboo, for example, was embraced as a stellar textile fiber because it grew quickly and did not require pesticides for protection. However, the process to convert the bamboo from a plant to a rayon fiber was discovered to be quite chemical intensive.

Phil Patterson, chairman and co-founder, along with John Mowbray and Richard Blackburn, of RITE (Reducing the Impact of Textiles on the Environment) Group, says while enthusiasm is waning for more expensive products such as organic cotton and recycled polyester, the sustainability debate is becoming more sophisticated.

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“Rather than going for headline-grabbing niche fibers or pursuing a one-dimensional, anti-chemical agenda, many see a reduction of water, energy and chemical consumption in mainstream textiles as a way of reducing footprints and coping in a challenging financial environment,” Patterson says.

Global textile solution provider Clariant, for example, has been working for the past two years with Cotton Incorporated on the launch of Foam Eco Care finishing for cotton fabrics, a breakthrough in advanced resin-based foam finish application. The new foam application is a high performance, sustainable, and innovative technology for wrinkle-free finishing, and results in improved energy usage as well as improved abrasion resistance and fabric strength, and reduced chemical usage without compromising durable press ratings.

Companies may be working on their “green” plans, but recession-fearing Americans are not overly concerned. Data reveal that although 40% of consumers are willing to pay more for natural fibers like cotton, just 35% will pay more for apparel that is sustainable, organic cotton (33%), environmentally friendly (31%), recycled (24%) or compostable (20%), according to the Cotton Incorporated 2011 Environment Survey.

Overall, consumers are more influenced by 100% cotton claims than claims of environmental friendliness, the Environment Survey finds. Seven out of 10 consumers say 100% cotton would influence their clothing purchase decisions, followed by natural (54%), sustainable (52%), environmentally-friendly (47%), organic (43%), recycled (42%), green (42%) or fair trade (42%).

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But that has not stopped many in the apparel industry from surging ahead with their ‘green’ agendas. Cotton Incorporated recently completed a comprehensive life cycle inventory and life cycle analysis of cotton products. The endeavor is part of the Cotton Foundation VISION 21 Project and included the participation of the National Cotton Council, Cotton Council International, and Cotton Incorporated.

“A Life Cycle Inventory is a collection of data sets that quantify several categories – including water, energy, air emissions and other environmental releases that occur throughout the life cycle of a product, process or activity,” said Janet Reed, Associate Director, Environmental Research at Cotton Incorporated. “A Life Cycle Assessment, on the other hand, is a process that evaluates potential environmental burdens associated with the life cycle of a product, process or activity, using the data sets contained in the Life Cycle Inventory.”

The two-year study, managed by PE International, a leading sustainability consultancy, and adhering to ISO-14040 standard, is designed to establish current and accurate benchmarks of potential environmental impacts across the global cotton supply chain. The LCA can aid in environmental decision-making by identifying key impact areas and quantifying decreased impact over time, benefiting both research directives and cotton textile supply chain decisions.

The study takes a holistic and thorough view of the life cycle of two cotton textile products: a knit golf shirt and woven cotton trousers. The life cycle inventory is a quantification of relevant energy and material inputs and environmental release data associated with the production of the fiber, i.e. cradle-to-gate, and manufacturing, i.e. gate-to-gate. The associated life cycle assessment models the environmental impact from the field through to consumer care, i.e. cradle-to-grave.

 

Data for the cradle to gate segment were collected from the three largest cotton producing countries – China, India, and the United States – and reported as a global average. Similarly, textile processing data were culled from surveys among representative mills in the four largest textile processing areas – Turkey, India, China, and Latin America – and were also presented as a global average. Credible secondary sources supplemented data for the cut-and-sew and consumer use phases.

“The LCA is cotton-centric, meaning it does not compare the environmental impact of cotton to competitive fibers,” says Berrye Worsham, Cotton Incorporated President and CEO.

One finding, echoed in a life cycle assessment completed by Levi’s® in 2007, found an area that poses the greatest potential for improvement is in at-home garment care. The retailer found that 58% of the energy and 45% of the water used over the course of a lifetime of a pair of Levi’s® jeans happens at home, in the consumer use and laundering phase. Levi’s® has since implemented new garment care tags that encourage consumers to wash their denim in cold water, wash less often, line dry, and donate to charity when no longer needed.

The Cotton Life Cycle Assessment also revealed that the primary energy and environmental impacts of agriculture are due to nitrogen, irrigation, and ginning. In the textile manufacturing phase, opening through spinning and dyeing are two areas that represent the greatest environmental improvement opportunities.

These findings have helped to shape strategic initiatives for the cotton industry, with the hope that environmental improvements can be just as good for the bottom line.

“As a result of the Cotton Life Cycle Assessment findings, we’re expanding research initiatives in water and nitrogen-use efficiencies; working with the LCA community to develop a more accurate model of agricultural toxicity impacts, including the incorporation of textile chemical profiles; continuing support of wastewater reduction research in textile manufacturing; and educating consumers on sustainable garment care,” Reed says.

Even though consumers do not regularly seek out green apparel, they appreciate companies that make the effort to provide it. The Environment Survey finds two-thirds of consumers (66%) would be bothered if they found out apparel they purchased was not environmentally-friendly. Forty-three percent would hold the manufacturer responsible, followed by themselves (15%) and the brand (12%).

Patterson, of RITE Group, says firms can start reducing their environmental footprint via full supply chain traceability, ensuring minimum standards for environmental compliance, implementing health and safety standards and then improving efficiency and product mix.

“Too many brands try a top down approach where they buy a few items of recycled/organic and try to pretend they are saving the world – when the reality is that the other 99.9% is business as usual — which can be products made in horrible conditions using very high environmental impact processes.”

Emily Thompson About Emily Thompson

Emily Thompson is the Associate Director, Editorial at Cotton Incorporated, the research and marketing company representing upland cotton. For more information on the Lifestyle Monitor™ Survey, please contact her at ethompson@cottoninc.com. The data found in this article, as well as additional relevant information, can be found at CottonLifestyleMonitor.com.