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Denim’s Green Progress: Focus on Environment Shifts to Profit Motive

Some of the apparel and textile industry’s most vocal sustainability advocates are focusing on the profit motive to find ways to consume and pollute less.

Think of it as the profit imperative.

This story first appeared in the August 1, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Some of the apparel and textile industry’s most vocal sustainability advocates are modifying their message, pulling back a bit on their emphasis on environmental stewardship in favor of a focus on the profit motive as the best way to sway marketers to find ways to consume and pollute less.

At the Kingpins show in New York last week — and particularly at the affiliated Continuum show that showcases companies that are building their businesses on sustainable practices, products and processes — exhibitors and buyers drove home the close ties between sustainable practices and the improved margins to be gained by reducing their consumption of water, energy and a bouillabaisse of toxic chemicals. Speakers at a series of seminars, whose places of business spanned the farm and the laboratory to the showroom and selling floor, demonstrated the bottom-line advantages to be gained from the embrace of ecologically responsible practices, even in the absence of strong consumer demand for swifter progress in making apparel less of an environmental hazard.

 

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“One of the quandaries of our industry right now is, if you were going to start something new today, why would it be anything other than something sustainable?” remarked Andrew Olah, chief executive officer of Olah Inc., the textile and apparel development and marketing firm that produces the shows. “But why would someone pay [extra] for it? Nobody wants to pay more for sustainable processes, but everyone wants to hear about them and integrate them wherever they can. What we’re seeing is that when someone at the top of a large company makes the commitment — like when Levi Strauss & Co. banned sandblasting — it takes on momentum. That will either happen preemptively or in reaction to outside pressures, but it’s very likely to happen.”

“Consumers assume that brands care about the environment,” noted Anne Gillespie, director of industry integrity at Textile Exchange. “The effort really has to come from the industry now. Brands and retailers have to demand their suppliers improve their processes and practices.”

Among the reasons for Gillespie’s view is the current confused state of environmentally oriented nomenclature. “Organic cotton is grown with minimal impact on the ecosystem and the least amount of human toll,” she said, “but that doesn’t speak to the manufacturing process. Theoretically, you could have a T-shirt made with nuclear waste but, based on how it was grown, it could be called ‘organic.’”

Among recent initiatives, a group of apparel firms joined together in November to establish a “joint roadmap toward zero discharge of hazardous chemicals,” known as ZDHC. That group — originally comprised of Adidas Group, C&A, H&M, Li-Ning, Nike and Puma — has added G-Star Raw and Levi’s since its inception and is studying the discharge of toxins from sites near factories in China and Bangladesh. (Information on the group and its activities is available at roadmaptozero.com.)

Similarly, the Better Cotton Initiative, which seeks “to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in and better for the sector’s future,” is at work in Brazil, India, Mali and Pakistan, with “BCI” cotton soon to come from China.

However, Alan Ayers, director of stakeholder relations and stewardship at Bayer CropScience LP, pointed out that of 120 million bales of cotton grown worldwide annually, just 300,000 of them are grown under BCI guidelines.

Ayers cited data from Field to Market, an organization promoting sustainable agriculture, to establish the ties between sustainability and efficiency. Between 1980 and 2011, total U.S. cotton production grew 55 percent and the yield 43 percent. Measured on the basis of a pound of cotton lint, land use decreased 30 percent, soil erosion declined 68 percent and the use of irrigation water dropped 75 percent. During the same time frame, energy use dropped 36 percent and greenhouse gas emissions, 30 percent.

Eddie Adams, an Arkansas-based farmer, noted that advances in technology had allowed him to maximize his cotton yield and “streamline production with lower carbon footprints and less damage to the soil.”

Adams pointed out that recent swings in the price of cotton — up to more than $2 a pound before dropping by about two-thirds — had only reinforced his commitment to sustainability, even if the path was a bit circuitous. “Depressed commodity prices forced us to become more efficient,” making it more incumbent upon those dependent on the soil for their livelihoods “to take advantage of the technology that’s out there.”

Samuel Moore, managing director of Hohenstein Institute America Inc., among the laboratories that grants the Oeko-Tex mark to companies abiding by its Oeko-Tex Standard 100, said, “When we look at how many gallons of water it takes to bring a product to market, the biggest reductions have to come from the wet process. The cotton plant itself requires a certain amount of water and water is necessary at just about every step along the way to finished product. The opportunity to have the biggest impact is at the dyehouse level.”

Illustrating that point at a separate seminar, Sanjeev Bahl, principal of Saitex International, which produces and finishes jeans and other apparel at a specially engineered facility in Vietnam, took attendees through the challenges faced as the company sought maximum sustainability in all aspects of its operations, reducing the consumption of water from 140 liters for a single pair of jeans down to six liters through processes including chemical compression, ozone utilization and water recycling.

While many of the practices adopted by Saitex involve complex and often proprietary engineering, others were surprisingly simple. The use of a skylight in its facilities was part of a reduction of 5.4 million kilowatt hours that helped yield energy savings of 45 percent, or more than $375,000 a year. Its overall $1 million investment produced a return-on-investment of 37.7 percent.

An identical investment in water conservation allowed for a reduction of more than 266,000 cubic meters, a 92.5 percent cut that generated savings of more than $165,000 and ROI of 16.8 percent.

Hohenstein’s Moore noted that “there are three legs to the sustainability stool — social, environmental and economical.”