By  on May 11, 2010

MIAMI — The concept of sustainability has evolved from running a socially responsible business to encompassing efficiency, profitability and survival.

Sustainability is a defining element of the future of the apparel industry, and those that can’t keep up are likely to be left behind in an era dominated by consumers who have an increasing awareness of and dedication to socially responsible businesses, said executives at the American Apparel & Footwear Association’s “Sourcing, Customs & Logistics Integration Conference” here last week.

“Our sustainability platform is the foundation of our business today,” said Anthony Corsano, president and chief executive officer of Anvil Knitwear.

Five years ago, Anvil made sustainability a cornerstone of the company’s operating procedure, Corsano said. Anvil has implemented initiatives that include improving energy efficiency, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and using sustainable materials to improving employee well-being. Other examples are an initiative to reuse the remnants of cones of thread left over after the manufacturing process, a move that cost $6,000 initially but had a return on investment of $100,000, Corsano said.

Anvil saved $900,000 last year through sustainability initiatives and about 99 percent of environmental initiatives it has undertaken have paid for themselves, he said.

“The only way to make a difference is to continue to be profitable,” Corsano said. “It’s our belief [sustainability] will be as instrumental a part of your business in securing new business as anything you do.”

In roundtable discussions during the summit, executives said they felt hampered by a lack of clear, easily accessible guidelines for how to create a sustainability model and how to push those changes out into a supply chain that relies increasingly on contractors the brands don’t own.

Some of the challenges could be tackled with greater levels of industry collaboration, speakers said, but starting small and rethinking basic business operations is a good starting point. Sustainable practices can be implemented in every part of a business, from moving to a paperless tracking system for freight to evaluating the modes of freight used to ship goods.

Corporations need to play an integral role in efforts to move the world toward a more sustainable model because they have such a huge impact and governments alone can’t make the necessary changes, said Ted Sattler, corporate executive vice president of foreign operations for Phillips Van-Heusen Corp.

The indication of just how far the sustainability movement has come is clear in the actions of major retailers such as Wal-Mart toward more “green” production and logistics. Wal-Mart has also put pressure on its suppliers to do the same, many speakers noted.

“Our industry will continue to be in the spotlight and you can’t put your head in the sand on compliance,” said Mark Jaeger, senior vice president, general counsel and secretary of Jockey International Inc.

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