By  on December 2, 2008

Pressure on brands and retailers to invest in lowering their environmental impact will mount despite weakening economic conditions and a contraction in consumer spending.

The apparel industry’s early interactions with the environmental movement have centered on the use of organic or eco-friendly materials. However, experts said long-term survival will push the industry to move beyond the material level and examine overall business practices. This next evolutionary step will require the industry to recognize that sustainability cannot be achieved without embracing environmentally friendly practices that reduce resource usage.

Booming population growth will make meeting the world’s needs for basics such as food, water and energy a significant challenge over the next 50 years.

During a sustainability conference in Sundance, Utah, hosted by Cotton Incorporated in October, speakers addressed how natural fibers such as cotton and wool would be hard-pressed to meet global demand because of increased competition for land and dwindling resources. Marty Matlock, associate professor of biological and agricultural engineering at the University of Arkansas, said the global population is expected to spike 40 percent to 9.25 billion by 2050 compared with the current population of 6.6 billion.

“We’ll need to increase food production by as much as 50 percent in order to feed that 9.25 billion people coming to dinner,” said Matlock.

Finding the land to grow more food or fiber will pose a challenge, as well.

“We’ve cultivated about all of the arable land on the planet already,” said Matlock. “Everything that is left is marginal.”

Several of the industry’s biggest names have already recognized the threat this backdrop presents to their long-term viability. On Nov. 19, Nike, Levi Strauss & Co. and the Timberland Co. were among the founding members of a coalition dubbed Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy, or BICEP. Along with Starbucks and Sun Microsystems, the group aims to spur climate and energy legislation in early 2009.

“At Nike, we know we face a future where global trends include water scarcity, rising energy consumption and severe impacts from climate change,” said Sarah Severn, director of corporate responsibility. “It would not only be environmentally and economically irresponsible to ignore these trends, but it would also be foolish not to prepare our business not only to withstand but also to thrive in a resource-constrained world.”

Nike uses more than 700 factories to manufacture its branded product, Severn said. Footwear accounts for about 60 percent of the brand’s carbon dioxide footprint, while apparel accounts for 8 percent. Nike is working with its factories to improve efficiency in existing plants and to include green building practices in new plants.

“They know it’s smart business to invest in an energy efficiency program,” said Severn.

Ellen Karp, founder and president of consumer research firm Anerca, believes consumers are “on the verge of a significant paradigm shift in textiles and apparel.” She noted that millennial consumers have grown up in an environmental age, with high-profile activists like Al Gore a constant presence. Karp said consumers don’t typically regress once they start making purchasing decisions based on environmental issues. Having a child has been the typical catalyst spurring consumers to become more environmental, and the first areas of focus have generally been food and personal care products.

“The apparel piece really lags behind, particularly because it’s not ingested,” said Karp. “Nobody has made a huge case for [apparel] and it’s partially because we’re so far from the source.”

Once that case is made in a way that resonates strongly with consumers, the apparel industry will have to respond quickly. Karp believes brands and retailers should focus on becoming more transparent about the impact of their products in order to build authentic relationships with their customers. She pointed to brands like Patagonia, Timberland and REI as examples of companies taking the correct approach.

“You have to share, warts and all, with the consumer,” said Karp. “But why is it just the outdoor apparel industry doing this? It needs to become more ubiquitous.”

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