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NEW YORK — The concept and practice of sustainability has crystallized its importance and expanded its purview in the apparel and textile industry.

This story first appeared in the March 27, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

From environmental and conservation concerns to human and labor rights issues, experts feel companies have become more aware and knowledgeable in a range of areas impacted by manufacturing. They have also learned that smarter practices and procedures can make them more efficient and profitable while reducing their risks in legal, financial and public relations realms.

While speakers and attendees at a Textile Exchange Sustainable Apparel Workshop here this month felt the industry has come a long way from just adopting basic codes of conduct or following Environmental Protection Agency regulations, they agreed there is a long way to go.

Organizers laid the groundwork with some startling statistics:

• It takes 700 gallons of freshwater to make one cotton T-shirt.

• The textile industry accounts for 10 percent of total global carbon impact.

• According to the World Bank, 20 percent of industrial freshwater pollution comes from textile treatment and dyeing.

• For every U.S. citizen, 68 pounds of clothing is thrown away every year.

• Textile waste occupies nearly 5 percent of all landfill space in the U.S.

Nicole Bassett, founder of Sustainability in Review and a Textile Exchange ambassador, said, “It is important to be clear about the stage of a product’s life cycle when referring to an environmentally friendly attribute. A product’s supply chain is complex with many issues that need to be addressed. Understanding the whole gives better context to why you are addressing the issues you are. Break down your priorities based on impact and control.”

Caterina Conti, executive vice president, chief administrative officer and general counsel at Anvil Knitwear discussed why her company chooses to use organic cotton in its products. Conti noted that nearly 50 percent of all textiles are made of cotton. Local or regional impacts of cotton cultivation differ widely according to a number of factors, she said, including climate, natural resources available, pest complexes, chemical and water inputs and outputs, access to capital and farm production efficiency.

She presented information from Cotton Incorporated that shows how cotton production has improved, such as 50 percent more cotton is produced worldwide today on the same amount of land as compared to 40 years ago, and pest management strategies and other enhanced technologies have resulted in reduced insecticide applications in the U.S. and globally.

She emphasized, however, that organic cotton is produced under a production system that relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and health of soil — no pesticides, herbicides or genetically modified seeds allowed. In the U.S., it takes three years for a field to be eligible for organic certification under the USDA National Organic Program Certification Standards, Conti noted. Textile Exchange projected the global organic cotton market would increase to $6.2 billion in 2011, and to $7.4 billion in 2012, after growing 20 percent in 2010 to reach $5.6 billion.

Anthony Lilore, a founder of Restore Clothing, which makes garments out of recycled materials, also advocated for organic cotton.

He said nitrogen synthetic fertilizers are a major contributor to increased N2O emissions, which are 300 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. He said it takes about a third of a pound of pesticides and herbicides to grow enough conventional cotton for just one T-shirt.

Lilore noted that traditional cotton fields can be transitioned to organic fields in two to three years.

“Organic farming methods use natural fertilizers, like compost and animal manure, that recycle the nitrogen already in the soil rather than adding more, which reduces both pollution and N2O emissions,” he said. “Organic cotton is grown using methods and materials that have a low impact on the environment. Organic production systems replenish and maintain soil fertility, reduce the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers, and build biologically diverse agriculture.”

Brands that use organic cotton can also benefit from point of sale materials that show third-party certification. He did acknowledge that “growing organically takes more time, requires more knowledge and skill, and at least for now costs a bit more, but it is worth it since it doesn’t contain any hidden costs to our environment.”

Recycled cotton is possibly the best choice of all, Lilore said, because it helps reduce the harsh dyes, pesticides and herbicides of conventional cotton and the energy, water and human labor required for both conventionally and organically grown cotton.

“Recycling discarded fibers also helps divert millions of tons of textile waste entering our landfills each year,” he added.

Lilore also pushed for using recycled polyester, such as Unifi’s Repreve line made from used plastic water bottles. He said it saves landfill space, saves energy and water, and reduces chemical emissions.

Tricia Carey, USA merchandising manager for the textile fiber business unit at Lenzing, discussed the renewable and sustainable aspects of its fibers such as Tencel and Modal. Carey noted how Lenzing fibers are derived from the cellulose of beech trees that are grown on marginal land unsuitable for food crops. Lenzing’s closed-loop manufacturing system actually creates energy in the pulp-to-fiber process, she added. Lenzing markets its range of official certifications in the areas of sustainability and environmental standards, as well as its recent inclusion in the USDA Bio-preferred program as important aspects of its products.

Bryan Dill, director Archroma Global Services at Clariant Corp., outlined some new processes in textile dyeing meant to reduce energy and water use, and harmful chemicals.

These include a new dye called Drimaren HF that has a high fixation rate for cellulosics, meaning minimum coloring of effluent and a shorter process time.

There are also new metal-free, wet-fast acid dyes for nylon beginning to be used for swim and athleticwear, and “Pad-Ox” dyeing for denim, a continuous process in which the dye is fixed by a mechanism of oxidation-fixation without any previous washing process.

Dill said for more sustainable dyeing methods, brands should ask their fabric mills if they have wastewater treatment, what they are doing to cut water and energy usage, how they are managing chemical use, and how a brand can incorporate RSL (restricted substance list), Oeko-Tex and Bluesign standards and certification into material sourcing.

Bassett also recommended using certification from recognized organizations to back up claims and maintain standards, and show retailers and consumers a brand’s commitment. In addition to those Dill suggested, these include Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Fairtrade Certified Cotton, USDA Certified Organic and Biobased, Intertek for recycled PET, Global Recycle Standard, Free2Work and the Workers Rights Consortium.

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