NEW YORK — The National Resources Defense Council’s Clean by Design program is causing an evolution in textile manufacturing.
Clean by Design, which presents solutions through a set of efficiency improvements for fabric dyeing and finishing that save money and reduce the environmental footprint, has made inroads at supplier factories in China and is set to expand.
At a panel discussion last week at the Colony Club here, Linda Greer, director of the NRDC’s Health and Environmental Program, opened by showing a video of polluted waterways in China and remarked: “It’s often said that you know the color of the fashion for the next season by the color of the rivers in China.”
Greer said when she started working in China, she realized that she couldn’t use the method of pushing the government to more strictly enforce environmental laws like she might have in the U.S., for example, because the Chinese government wasn’t interested. So she approached the private sector.
“We’ve introduced the program now to about 200 mills and have carefully tracked implementation to about 50 of them,” Greer said. “It’s not just a matter of educating the mills, but tracking them and making sure pollution actually goes down. We have found that the program works pretty much across all kinds of mills — big, small, old, new; knit, denim, woven, the whole suite of mills — and in the best case…our mills have achieved as much as 40 percent reduction in their water and energy use.”
This has been achieved, she said, through a 10-step best practices program that is practical, low-cost and easy to implement, and pays the mills back quickly, usually within a year.
“In the past year, we reduced the program to 100 mills, tracked 33, undertook 200 improvement projects and reduced, in total, 3 million tons of water, 26,000 tons of coal, 36 million kilowatt hours of electricity and 400 tons of chemicals,” Greer said. “The star performers — six mills — further reduced about 20 percent of their water and 10 percent of their energy usage. Cost savings have been similarly very impressive — more than half the mills saved $150,000 a year or more, five of the mills saved $800,000 a year and the best mill saved $3.5 million a year in these programs. Next year, the goal is to track 100 mills and then expand into other manufacturing categories. But it’s not like a hot knife through butter. The key to the kingdom for us is to work harder with buyers to make them require it of their factories, while we work harder in introducing the programs.”
Greer said the future goals are to expand the textile program to other countries and more mills, while adding more categories such as leather, cosmetics and electronics.
Laurent Claquin, head of Kering Americas, said François-Henri Pinault, the parent company’s chairman and chief executive officer, “has a strong conviction for sustainability because he thinks a sustainable business is a smart business.”
“We have launched sustainability programs in the last several years that have very ambitious policies and standards, and measurable objectives,” Claquin said. “From the very beginning, the approach was a holistic one that includes social and community. We have a strong commitment to women’s empowerment. As for the environment, we try to work on every aspect of the supply chain.”
The French group made public its 2016 sustainability targets in 2012. Among them are reducing carbon emissions, waste and water usage by 25 percent; eliminating PVC from all collections; sourcing gold, diamonds, leather, precious skins and fur from responsible, verified and sustainable mines or farms, and switching to paper and packaging that is 100 percent sustainable and made from at least 50 percent recycled content. The firm also aims to phase out hazardous chemicals from all production by 2020.
Now, Kering has designated 25 mills in Italy to work with the Clean by Design initiative, “so we’re engaging with the suppliers, which is critical, but it’s also just the first step.”
Adam Mott, director of sustainability at The North Face, said, “We worked with NRDC in China and were able to increase resource efficiency at some of our top mills by 20 percent, and now we’ve taken those learnings and are adapting them to other countries.”
Mott said the other key area that North Face has focused on is chemical management.
“Chemical responsibility is really important at [parent company] VF Corp. and specifically to us at North Face,” he said. “We didn’t see a program out there that addressed chemical responsibility on a global scale, so we decided to create one ourselves. We’ve been testing the program for the past year, year-and-a-half and now are rolling it out on a bigger scale this year. And hopefully rolling it out to the industry as a whole.”
Mott noted that North Face’s connection to environmental stewardship used to be focused on conservation, then shifted to Life Cycle Assessment, working from design concept and raw materials to end-of-life cycle of the product, where it found that 65 to 70 percent of the environmental impact was in the manufacturing supply chain.
This caused a shift in resource development that now has the polyester that goes into its signature Denali jacket made from 100 percent recycled polyester made from plastic bottles.
“Then we started to look at how we process the product — dyeing and finishing — and the next thing that we changed was how we dye the product,” Mott said.
Noting that the dyeing process for fabrics is chemical-, water- and energy-intensive, North Face switched to yarn-dyeing from piece-dyeing, which saved 50 percent of the energy and water. Then North Face looked into fabric pattern waste and began using scrap waste in the yarns.
Mott, who is also a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, told WWD he’s involved in working toward creating industrywide standards that are certifiable using the Higg Index, a suite of sustainability assessment tools that evaluate impacts through facility, brand and product, as a guide.
Scott Hahn, ceo of Loomstate, which uses 100 percent organic cotton, said, “The concept of sustainability is shifting to the idea of supply chain and commodity to community, not just being concerned about the supply chain’s impact, but how are the communities that are making these products doing with education, with child care, with human health issues.”