By  on April 10, 2007

The cost benefits of environmentally sustainable initiatives convince more businesses to go green.

Going green is more than just fashionable.

As retailers and apparel manufacturers pay more attention to operating in environmentally sustainable ways, they are finding some of the changes help boost the bottom line.

Fashion has a track record of being sensitive to social issues, be it Liz Claiborne Inc.'s fight against domestic violence or the myriad of issues Kenneth Cole champions in his ad campaigns. Now the industry has many reasons for going green, including a new awareness of global warming and a sense of moral responsibility, as well as a desire to market to "earthy" types.

But it is cold, hard cash that makes environmental sustainability more than a corporate fad, said experts.

"When you get right down to it, there's one major driver and that's money," said Rick Horwitch, vice president of solutions and business development for consumer products at Bureau Veritas, a service company specializing in quality, health, safety and environmental and social accountability.

Fashion firms are trying to do any number of things that use less energy, from installing more efficient lightbulbs in stores and redesigning packaging to using solar power and more environmentally friendly building materials for stores.

"All of these things, they're good things to do, they are socially and environmentally responsible things to do, but when the day is over, all of them represent taking inefficiencies out of the system, which equals money," said Horwitch. "Companies are going to continue to do it."

Still, Salman Ehsan, director of softlines for international sales and U.S. operations at SGS Consumer Testing Services, sounded a cautious note and said it was still too early to tell to what degree American companies will go green.

"Ultimately, for the U.S., it will come down to a few factors such as consumer awareness and demand for [eco-friendly products], as well as willingness to pay a premium for them [given the higher raw materials costs for eco-products]," said Ehsan.

However, he said, the increasingly global nature of business might spur U.S. companies to continue on a path to eco-efficiency, particularly companies that do business in places where going green is already popular, such as Europe."Regional and local trends transform into global trends rather easily these days," said Ehsan.

Even though some companies have long made environmental stewardship a central part of their identity, Wal-Mart's turn toward environmentalism in 2004 might have been the turning point for the retail industry.

With sales of $345 billion annually, Wal-Mart has a gigantic retail footprint, contact with producers around the globe and the potential to influence the industry as a whole. On its Web site, Wal-Mart touts an effort that helped one of its toy suppliers reduce packaging, resulting in the use of 230 fewer shipping containers, saving 356 barrels of oil and 1,300 trees.

Such movement by individual companies may ultimately provide bigger environmental gains than a more coordinated action.

"When industries try to move all at once, what you get is the lowest common denominator, and it would be a terrible mistake to harness movement to the pace of the slowest marcher," said Jessica Tuchman Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "What you want to do instead is let the innovative companies move and then have others scramble to catch up."

Mathews predicted changes on the horizon for energy policies, following 35 years of inaction at the federal level.

"When Washington can't move, the states begin to move," she said. "Eventually, the industry that has been lobbying against legislation in Washington comes back to Washington and says, 'We can't live with 50 different state laws, save us, enact some national legislation.'"

The green push has been a long time coming to retail, where it is in many ways a natural fit, given retailers' obsession with efficiency.

"It's been under the surface for quite a long time," said Claudia Mobley, executive director of the Center for Retailing Excellence at the University of Arkansas. "It is a better way to do business and to make your business more sustainable, but it's also a much bigger issue that these large companies are coming to a realization of how much impact they have on society," she said.

The willingness to pursue renewable energy and other environmental programs might be flowing down from high atop the corporate pyramid."One thing that I think has changed is that there are a lot of people in the boardroom who have seen things like Al Gore's documentary and have a different consciousness now about being green," said Daniel Butler, vice president of merchandising and retail operations at the National Retail Federation. "Now that you have people at the top with a more open mind-set, you have more midlevel executives proposing new ideas and new initiatives."

There are some efforts out there to get fashion companies to move in unison. The American Apparel & Footwear Association, with 429 member companies, has appointed an environmental task force to put together a list of chemicals that are restricted in various countries, and to formulate a set of environmental best practices that can help guide companies to more sustainable ways.

"With all the information that's out there, we need to do things properly to help our corporations, which will in turn help our environment," said John Eapen, chairman of the task force.

The restricted chemicals list, which will be completed shortly, will include about 115 chemicals that are regulated in various global markets, such as AZO dyes, which have been found to be carcinogenic.

"Some of the big brand name retail companies have their own lists and how they expect their suppliers to comply," said Eapen, who is also vice president of environmental, health and safety at thread manufacturer American & Efird Inc. "We're hoping a list like this will help all our members."

A spokeswoman for the Sierra Club environmental group welcomed the efforts of the apparel industry.

"It's great to see the fashion industry rising to the challenge, because global warming is real, here and happening faster than anyone predicted," she said.

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