NEW YORK — The fashion industry is being asked to clean up its act, literally.

This story first appeared in the April 17, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

On Monday morning, key industry leaders gathered at the Lambs Club here to show support for Clean by Design, an initiative from the National Resources Defense Council in association with the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Vogue. The program, which seeks to significantly reduce the negative impact the industry has on the environment, already has an important political supporter: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.).

Gillibrand was joined at the launch by industry figures such as Mark Lee; David Lauren and Lauren Bush Lauren; Andrew Rosen; Millard “Mickey” Drexler; Tory Burch; Francisco Costa; Derek Lam; Behnaz Sarafpour; Nanette Lepore; Zac Posen, and Joseph Altuzarra. Anna Carter, a trustee of the NRDC, co-hosted the breakfast, which also drew CFDA president Diane von Furstenberg, Anna Wintour and Graydon Carter.

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“This is such an opportunity for all of us — as an industry, as New Yorkers, as people who do an extraordinary job in creating economic growth — to join with the NRDC to take on this mission, which I think is unprecedented, and really herald a new era of what social change can be done by industry,” Gillibrand said.

The event made clear that it’s as crucial as ever to spotlight the environment. “In this very difficult economy, my first priority is making sure that New York maintains its leadership as the fashion capital of the world, and that it continues to be an agent for job growth,” Gillibrand said. “We have to make sure we can impact our communities and our world in how we run our businesses.”

One of Clean by Design’s aims is to get designers, retailers and brands to better understand their supply chain, and promote improvements at the factories they employ. A video highlighted how toxic fashion’s impact on nature can be, which was underlined with a visual of a Chinese river polluted by dyes, and the accompanying statement that next season’s fashion colors can be determined by the colors of the rivers in China.

The NRDC has made it a key mission to help fashion companies improve their carbon footprints, which gathered momentum a decade or so ago when many U.S. companies started manufacturing offshore.

“We have found opportunities to reduce impact, using means that actually save the factories money, with process efficiency improvements that win-win, so to speak,” said Linda Greer, director of the NRDC’s health and environment program.

“What we found when we got there was that the standard of operation of many, if not most, factories was far below global standards and desperately needed to improve,” Greer added. “The era of operating without knowledge of your factories abroad is ending, and the curtain is rising above the sorts of problems and aspirations that we have abroad.”

The NRDC developed 10 quick, low-cost practices to substantially reduce the usage of water, energy and electricity, for instance. They range from leak detection and maintenance in factories to the reuse of cooling and process waters, to recovering heat from smoke stacks. According to these general guidelines, for every 1 ton of fabric produced, the 10 practices can cut mills’ water usage by up to 23 percent and fuel usage by up to 32 percent. “In one of our first showcase examples, a mill invested $70,000 and, within the first year, had saved nearly $850,000 in its operation,” Greer noted.

After her presentation, Greer elaborated on why the time is right for the launch. “The curtain is really rising over in China about the problems with manufacturing,” she said. “We have seen that with Apple’s problems.

“There is increasing transparency about the problems of these operations in China, and so it’s really time to get moving and not just figure that ‘It’s halfway around the world and nobody will ever know,’” she added. “We’re also just about done with our dozen showcase mills. These are improvements that stood the test of time, so I think it’s ripe for the picking for our industry, and ripe for the leaders of this industry to get behind.”

Anna Carter elaborated: “It takes as much as 200 tons of water to produce 1 ton of fabric. Since less than 1 percent of the world’s water is drinkable, and our demand for it is on track to double over the next 40 years, this is an issue we need to address. We would be much more effective if we address it together.”

PPR, which has made sustainability a key focus across its luxury and sports holdings, and its subsidiary Stella McCartney already agreed to participate. While McCartney herself wasn’t present Monday morning, she sent a powerful message in the video. “You only live once,” she said. “And what is it that you leave behind as a business person? Is it just some great handbags and a nice pair of shoes, or is it actually that and a conscious business?”

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