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Green Issue: Standing Up to Scrutiny

Textile makers face challenges to their eco claims.

A worker checks a machine sorting organic cotton grown in Burkina Faso at the Faso Cotton factory in Ouagadougou.
Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD Green issue 10/28/2008

Textile manufacturers looking to get in on the green move-ment by marketing their products as environmentally friendly can expect to face increasing government scrutiny and a bevy of lawyers sharpening their knives in anticipation of legal action.

When it comes to claiming environmental advantages, the Federal Trade Commission’s consumer protection division and the legal community have focused largely on consumer products such as food and cleaning products. That focus is now shifting down the supply chain to the textiles level at a time when more and more textile producers are introducing eco-products.

The message wasn’t lost on the 65 textile and apparel manufacturers and retailers attending Cotton Inc.’s second sustainability summit last week in Sundance, Utah. It was an attention-getting moment, sounding the alarm and fittingly delivered by Brooks Beard, a partner with law firm Morrison & Foerster LLP. According to Beard, the FTC instituted only 37 enforcement actions involving environmental claims between 1990 and 2000. Since then, no enforcement actions have been taken on the issue.

“I don’t know how much longer that’s going to last,” said Beard. “We think in the next nine months we’re going to see more enforcement actions.”

Beard has found that the majority of problems related to exaggerated or inaccurate environmental claims can be traced back to the handover of a product from its development team to marketing departments. Marketers, said Beard, have a natural tendency to want to emphasize words or results that can end up overstating or muddying the message. While the FTC may become more active, Beard warned that the legal community is on its own hunt for a headline-making case.

“They are looking for the poster child case they can bring here,” he said.

Korin Ewing, an attorney with the FTC’s consumer protection division, acknowledged that the attention given to textiles was on the rise.

“Environmental textile claims are becoming a big issue in the market,” she told attendees.

The FTC’s Green Guides, although not developed with textiles specifically in mind, offer guidance on how to properly market environmental products. What marketers often don’t realize is that it is not only the words used in marketing that are scrutinized. Names, seals, symbols and images are all taken into account in assessing how consumers interpret marketing. The benchmark, said Ewing, is to consider how a “reasonable consumer” interprets your message.

“If you’re going to make a claim about your product in the marketplace, you need to be able to substantiate those claims,” said Ewing.

Supporting environmental claims often requires showing the company’s own testing and analysis as well as independently obtained research from experts in the field.

Using certain environmental terms can also require the marketer to disclose a range of other details. If a product is labeled organic, for example, it automatically requires that the product be certified under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. It also mandates that the product list its exact fiber content, stating exactly how much of the material used is certified organic.

“Don’t overstate your product attributes,” said Ewing. The consequences of doing so can include cease and desist orders, injunctions, refunds for consumers and “disgorgement of ill-gotten gains.”

Textile manufacturers are finding more flexibility in discussing environmental issues by shifting the focus from discussions based solely on organics or eco-friendly products to the broader concept of sustainability. For several years now, the U.S. conventional cotton industry has adopted a stance that posits that organically grown cotton may not be the most efficient use of resources and won’t be able to satisfy the needs of a ballooning global population.

“When we think of agriculture we must take a long view and ask ourselves what will the world need in terms of food and fiber in the next half century,” said J. Berrye Worsham, chief executive officer of Cotton Inc., in his opening remarks at the conference.

Population forecasting supports the logic behind this argument and presents an ominous picture of the situation the world will face in the next 50 years. Marty Matlock, associate professor of biological and agricultural engineering at the University of Arkansas, said global population growth poses one of the greatest threats to the Earth and its resources. The global population is expected to spike by 40 percent to 9.25 billion by 2050 compared with the current population level 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 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.”

One area the cotton industry is targeting for environmental improvement is wet processing of cotton. An estimated 56 billion pounds of cotton is processed each year, using 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,” said Dr. Sam Winchester, Klopman Distinguished Professor Emeritus at North Carolina State University. “The Amazon is larger than the next 10 rivers in the world [combined].”

Employing membrane filtration systems that would allow dyes and chemicals to be reused would result in a sustainable system. However, Winchester estimates the cost of overhauling the textile industry would reach upward of $10 billion.

Other synthetic and natural producers also are preaching sustainability over strict environmentalism. In September, Invista Apparel introduced its Planet Agenda program, an operational framework for the company that strives to produce longer-lasting products in ways that reduce environmental impact. The company also recently appointed Margaret Jacob as its sustainability director.

Lenzing Fibers is positioning its plant-derived fibers, Modal and Tencel, as direct alternatives. The company recently announced the introduction of ProModal, a blend of Modal and Tencel, and is marketing it as an environmental alternative to cotton. According to Lenzing, ProModal has a yield six times higher than that of cotton and uses up to 20 times less water.