Seeking Transparency

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How Sustainability Can Enhance Your Supply Chain

Has sustainability truly become part of our lexicon, or is it still just a buzzword? Today, most consumers expect products and their manufacturing processes to be sustainable; indeed, it’s part of the legacy of the original Earth Day, held more than 40 years ago. And while Millennials demand it, they’re not always willing to pay more for it. So how can the retail industry adapt?

“Research reveals price and style still top consumers’ lists of purchase drivers when shopping for apparel, though environmental-friendliness remains a draw,” says Kim Kitchings, Vice President, Corporate Strategy and Program Metrics, Cotton Incorporated. “When she buys something that looks great on her and is the right price for her budget, the item’s environmental-friendliness becomes a kind of added bonus.”

Indeed, data from the 2014 Cotton Incorporated Environment Survey support this; 98% of women say fit is the most important factor when making a clothing purchase, followed by comfort (97%), quality (95%), and price (95%). Nearly half (46%) of female consumers cited environmental-friendliness.

While it may not be the top priority for the consumer, it remains an important priority for retailers and manufacturers, who are today ramping up their investments in sustainability and seeking transparency in their supply chains. And though most consumers do not plan to purchase clothing or home textiles labeled as being environmentally-friendly (49%), sustainable (43%), recycled (38%), GMO-free (28%), or compostable (24%) in the next year, Millennials are significantly more likely than older generations to plan on seeking out these types of garments in the coming year.


Brands appealing to Millennials are on the band wagon. One such example is H&M’s Garment Collecting program, which launched in 2013 and encourages consumers to drop off unwanted garments at stores in all of its 53 markets. The company has committed to creating a “new life” for unwanted items “by collecting used garments…and turning old textile fibers into new yarn. Recycled textiles decrease the use of raw materials – like water and oil – otherwise needed to produce new [fibers],” according to its website.

The first denim collection, which consists of five pieces for men and women containing 20% recycled cotton, hit stores in February.
“We are working increasingly with recycled materials, and as a designer, it is very important to create pieces taking into account the latest trends, but also technical developments in this field,” says H&M designer, Jon Loman.

The program bears a strong resemblance to Cotton Incorporated’s own Blue Jeans Go Green™ program, which gives old denim new life by turning it into housing insulation and donating it to communities in need. Since the program’s inception eight years ago, it has collected more than 1 million pieces of denim, often through retail partnerships with companies like GAP and J.Crew, which enable consumers to turn in old denim in exchange for a discount on a new pair of jeans.

And in April 2014, H&M and Zara announced a partnership with Canadian environmental NGO Canopy for a “Fashion Loved by Forest” campaign, in order to address the fact that the clothing industry’s reliance on manmade fibers has an increasingly detrimental impact on Earth’s natural resources, including its endangered forests.

According to a recent Canopy press release announcing the initiative, approximately 70 million trees were used in fabric production to create manmade fibers like rayon and viscose in 2013, a number that is expected to double by 2034: “Globally rare forests are cut down, pulped and spun into suit jacket linings, dresses, skirts, t-shirts and tank tops. The dissolving pulp/viscose industry is poised for continued ambitious expansion and poses an increasing risk to threatened forest ecosystems around the world.”

This news may come as a surprise to many consumers, who perhaps don’t realize exactly where those manmade fibers come from. And when consumers purchase clothing they think is produced in an environmentally-friendly manner only to find out it was not, 39% tend to blame the manufacturer first, followed by the brand (15%), and themselves (12%), according to the 2014 Cotton Incorporated Environment Survey.

As a result, the retail industry continues to demand supply chain assurances of responsible practices. For cotton, there are numerous routes to assure retailers. Fee-based certification programs, such as Better Cotton Initiative, vet individual farms that are making efforts to decrease their environmental impact. There is also the no-fee Cotton LEADS™ program, which points to the national regulation and transparency of the Australian and U.S. cotton industries, which supply 15% of the world’s cotton, or 17 million bales, and their track records of significant and ongoing environmental improvement, as validation.

“Cotton LEADS is designed to assist businesses along the cotton supply chain with their sustainability goals,\” says Berrye Worsham, president and CEO of Cotton Incorporated. \”Apparel brands, retailers, and manufacturers require large volumes and a reliable supply of responsibly-produced fiber, as well as proof of responsible production. Through Cotton LEADS we demonstrate how cotton grown in the United States and Australia can help meet these requirements.”

The program has resonated strongly with the textile supply chain; currently, more than 100 retailers, brands and manufacturers have joined the Cotton LEADS™ program as partners, including Brooks Brothers, Central Textiles, and Fruit of the Loom.

Seeking continual improvement in the industry on behalf of consumers remains incredibly important, and making the process transparent is not just a responsible marketing strategy, but good for business. Let’s strive to design the future – not scramble to play catch-up.



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