By  on September 23, 2008

NEW YORK — Speakers at The Green Event here last week encouraged sourcing executives to view lowering the environmental impact of their businesses as an imperative for the survival of their jobs and the planet.

The two-day conference and exposition held Thursday and Friday at the Millennium Broadway Hotel featured speakers from textile and apparel manufacturers and retailers. Andrew Winston, founder of Winston Eco-Strategies and co-author of “Green to Gold,” opened the conference by outlining some of the issues fueling the environmental movement. Chief among those issues is global warming.

“What’s underlying this change is a change in the planet that’s moving much faster than even scientists predicted,” said Winston.

More evidence of this change came out recently, Winston noted, with the announcement that both the Northwest Passage and the Northeast Passage above Russia were free of ice for the first time.

Winston acknowledged that debate over whether global warming is being caused by man continues. Despite this, he noted that the business community has largely accepted global warming as a fact and is seeking innovations to clean up their supply chains and their products. These efforts are helping their bottom lines by reducing waste and encouraging better efficiency.

“Using the environment as a way to look at your business can generate innovation,” said Winston.

Consumer attitudes toward products have been altered by the environmental movement, as well. The segment of consumers who will only buy green or environmentally friendly goods remains small and is not likely to grow significantly, he said. But mainstream consumers have altered the criteria by which they judge the quality of a product. Winston said consumers are now considering characteristics such as where a product is made, if the workers were paid a livable wage and how much energy was used to produce it as part of their overall assessment of quality.

Studies have found that consumers are willing to pay only a small premium for an ethical or eco-friendly product. Their reaction to a good that doesn’t meet ethical standards, however, is more negative.

“[Consumers] will punish the ones they think don’t meet whatever standard they have,” said Winston. “That means the bar is rising. If you don’t meet whatever the standard is at the top, you might get punished badly.”

In 2007, U.K. retailer Marks & Spencer launched a program dubbed “Plan A — Because there is no plan B.” According to Graham Burden, the retailer’s sustainable textiles and cotton specialist, the program has forced the company to analyze its business practices and develop ways to improve its environmental footprint.

Cotton has proved to be a key area of focus. According to Burden, about 55 percent of Marks & Spencer’s goods use cotton, translating into roughly 80,000 tons of cotton a year. He noted cotton is grown in 90 countries by 30 million farmers. However, 85 of those countries are on the United Nation’s list of least-developed nations.

The retailer’s cotton strategy now seeks to “support the best, help the rest and avoid the worst,” said Burden. As part of that program, the retailer has been using more Fair Trade cotton that helps farmers in developing countries. A Fair Trade product is one produced under fair wages and certified social and environmental standards.

Burden believes apparel manufacturers and retailers must fully embrace environmental practices.

“It’s no good just sticking a few garments in the store and saying this is organic cotton and then not worrying about the rest of what you’re doing,” he said. “To be honest, I think that’s playing at it, it’s cherry-picking and I don’t think that’s actually conveying to your customers what your true intent is.”

Manufacturers and retailers are likely to continue to find more eco-friendly options at the textile level. Unifi touted its recycled nylon product, Repreve, while Lenzing Fibers talked up the natural qualities of Tencel, which is developed from plant fibers.

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