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Focus on Cotton as Environmental Movement Gains

The environmental movement has become a major force in fashion that won?t be slowed by global economic turmoil and a pullback in consumer spending.

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The environmental movement has become a major force in fashion that won’t be slowed by global economic turmoil and a pullback in consumer spending, experts said.

And amid pressure on the apparel industry to green its products, brands and retailers are focusing on cotton, one of the most widely used and processed fibers.

While addressing different ends of the cotton spectrum, speakers at two key industry events made clear that long-term business survival would depend on companies examining every aspect of their supply chains to identify waste and inefficient use of resources. The conferences, devoted to examining cotton’s role in the apparel industry and how to reduce its environmental footprint, attracted sourcing executives from some of the biggest names in fashion and retailing over six days in mid-October.

Portugal’s second largest city, Porto, was the site for Organic Exchange’s global conference Oct. 14 to 17 and attracted 200 guests. Robert Redford’s Sundance Resort in Sundance, Utah, served as the backdrop of Cotton Incorporated’s second sustainability summit Oct. 19 to 21, drawing 65 attendees.

Tim Sanders, author of “Saving the World at Work” and moderator of the Cotton Inc. conference, noted that the difficulty facing the apparel and other industries lies in having to reverse-engineer long-established and often expensive systems.

“The reason so much of our business isn’t sustainable is that we haven’t properly designed how we conduct business from beginning to end with the environment in mind,” Sanders said.

Experts said water usage is the primary area where environmental improvements can be achieved, regardless of whether cotton is conventionally or organically grown. The wet processing of cotton — washing, scrubbing, treating and bleaching — is inherently water-intensive. An estimated 56 billion pounds of cotton is processed each year, requiring 1 trillion gallons of water, 33 trillion gallons of oil and 20 billion pounds of chemicals.

“This amount of water is about what can be pushed out of the Amazon river in 24 hours at low flood stage,” Sam Winchester, Klopman Distinguished Professor Emeritus at North Carolina State University, said at the Cotton Inc. conference. During a Cotton Inc. conference in the summer, he equated the volume as enough to fill Lake Michigan.

The textile industry is still in the early stages of putting in place practices to reduce water usage, Winchester said, adding that the first step is for better water-management practices at wash and dye houses. That is a move he believes will reduce usage by 10 percent. The second stage is to adopt new technologies to reduce water and chemical usage by as much as 50 percent. The final and most effective strategy will be the implementation of membrane filtration systems that will allow facilities to filter, retrieve and reuse specific dyes and chemicals.

“If you choose your [membrane filtration] medium properly, you can recycle the various dyes and chemicals,” Winchester said. “You can isolate those out in separate streams and send those back into the system. This is a game changer because it is a way to shift completely away from simply reducing the water being used and transforming [the industry] from renewable to sustainable.”

In this scenario, water usage could be so efficient that textile facilities would no longer need to be located near or next to rivers and lakes. However, widespread use of membrane filtration is years off and likely will cost the textile industry more than $10 billion.

Retailers at the Organic Exchange conference said they were putting more pressure on their suppliers to improve water management practices and reduce their “water footprint.”

Henrik Lampa, environmental supply chain manager at Hennes & Mauritz, said that when the Swedish retailer began checking into wastewater treatment at its suppliers, it was embarrassed to find that some of its factories didn’t have wastewater plants at all.

“We told them, ‘Invest in water plants and we will work with you,’” Lampa said, adding the next challenge is to ensure that factories actually push the power button.

“It’s interesting to see that the big emerging issues, such as the impacts of climate change and water use, are starting to influence decision making and drive efficiencies in the supply chain,” said Lauren Orme, sustainable raw materials manager for Marks & Spencer, which joined in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund to investigate water use in the production of cotton in India.

What might appear to be small changes in the supply chain can add up to big savings, said Peter Johnson, product steward at Huntsman Textile Effects, who explained that, to make a basic T-shirt by following best practices in the pretreatment, dyeing and printing processes, water, time and energy could be saved. By using certain reactive dyes, temperatures can be lowered, dyeing times shortened and total water use reduced by as much as half. The reason such practices aren’t yet industrywide is the result of conservatism, outdated machinery and, above all, cost, Johnson said.

“Suppliers are caught between a rock and a hard place,” Johnson said. “Consumers are used to inexpensive clothing. While chemicals and dyeing only account for 3 percent of a garment’s retail cost, there’s a downward pressure on the dyer to then buy the cheapest dyes, and ignore the real costs of energy and water use.”

Cotton also has been targeted by environmentalists as a water-intensive crop, a contention the U.S. industry denies. Ed Barnes, associate director of agricultural research at Cotton Inc., said only 35 percent of U.S. cotton acres require irrigation. The rest, he said, relies primarily on natural rainfall.

“I wish I could tell you irrigation’s bad so don’t buy irrigated cotton and then we’d be done,” Barnes said. “But there’s a couple things. We get the most production per unit area on our irrigated acres. Actually, that’s not just from cotton, but from all of the world’s agriculture.”

Cotton farms in arid areas of Arizona and California can yield four times the amount of cotton per acre as those in other parts of the country, he noted.

Despite representing less than 1 percent of global cotton production, organic cotton continues to garner interest and investment from major brands and retailers.

“Even in this tough economic environment, major brands and retailers reinforced their commitment to increasing their use of organic cotton,” Joan Mudget, vice president of Nordstrom Product Group and director of supply chain, said at the Organic Exchange conference.

Through its partnership with the Organic Exchange in Uganda, Nordstrom has followed moves by companies such as Woolworth’s South Africa, Katharine Hamnett and C&A to invest in farms to help organic cotton expand globally.

Although the project is still in its infancy, Nordstrom is funding training and technical assistance to help farmers improve their crop yields, Mudget said. Though it doesn’t buy the fiber directly, Nordstrom’s yarn spinners, weavers and knitters will purchase it and then manufacture to the department store’s specifications.

“Ultimately, we know that organic cotton is increasingly important to our customers,” she said.

Apparel retailer C&A Europe, in partnership with Organic Exchange and the Shell Foundation, is investing $1.6 million to help 50,000 Indian farmers in the three-year conversion from conventional to organic cotton.

“What’s different and challenging about this is it’s going right back to the farm level,” said Philip Chamberlain, head of sourcing at C&A Europe, which next year will introduce the cotton into its 1,200 European stores.

C&A will tell the conversion story to consumers through an advertising campaign and its Web site.

Such partnerships give farmers a guaranteed market for their cotton and have spurred rapid growth. Organic cotton production spiked 152 percent in the 2007-08 crop year to 145,872 metric tons, led by India, which tripled its yield to become the world’s top producer. However, after years of organic cotton not keeping up with demand, there are now concerns that supply will outpace the market.

“There’s a surplus, absolutely, but no one’s talking about it,” said Peter Tschannen, managing director of Switzerland’s Remei AG, which supplies organic cotton to retailers including the Swiss retailer Coop and France’s Monoprix.

Several U.S. organic farmers confirmed they have leftover stock. Rather than declining demand, the dramatic leap in production is the cause, according to Simon Ferrigno, director of the Organic Exchange’s farm development program. He said organic cotton must be brought to the market more efficiently, with possible solutions including pooling leftover stock to attract bigger buyers. Organic cotton still represents just 0.55 percent of global cotton production.

In his keynote address at the Cotton Inc. summit, Ray Anderson, founder of commercial carpet company Interface, who experienced his environmental awakening at the age of 60, urged executives to recognize the flawed logic of current business systems. The status quo is “an opiate,” he said.

“What’s the business case for an entire economic system that says it’s cheaper to destroy the earth than take care of it,” Anderson said. “I ask, ‘How did such a fantasy system that defies common sense even come to be? How did all of us get swept up in the siren’s song?’”

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