While we observed our 45th Earth Day in America last month, an environmental event also occurred in Shanghai. There, textile manufacturers, retailers and brands cited their role in NRDC’s Clean by Design, an initiative that slashed the water, energy and chemical footprints of mills in China.
Clean by Design was created as a business-friendly program to reduce the environmental impacts of textile manufacturing in China and other developing countries. This “green supply chain” initiative is founded on Ten Best Practices — a proven set of process efficiency improvements to reduce the environmental impact of textile dyeing and finishing mills, which are a key “hot spot” of environmental impact in the industry. Within the program, hundreds of improvements have been demonstrated in more than 50 mills around the world that have proven to be high impact, low cost and profitable, with a short payback period of usually less than a year.
In 2014, on average, mills reduced 9 percent of their water use, with the top five mills reducing more than 20 percent. They reduced their energy use by 6 percent with the top five reducing more than 10 percent. Money? Clean by Design delivered, on average, savings of $440,000 in the first year, with the top five mills saving more than $880,000. The top mill saved more than $3.5 million. Every one of the textile mills that has participated in Clean by Design — the old and new, large and small, knit, woven and denim — improved its environmental performance and saved money. And major players like Target Corp., Gap Inc., Levi Strauss & Co. and H&M have played a key role in recruiting factories to participate.
Given the track record of Clean by Design and the growing sustainability buzz in the fashion industry, recruitment into this program should be a snap. But it hasn’t been that easy. To date, most companies have declined to participate, even those with prominent sustainability profiles.
This existing pinch-point shines light on a seldom-discussed elephant in the room: In truth, corporate social responsibility programs and the “sustainability journeys” upon which most companies in the fashion industry have embarked fall short of serious, professional efforts. For the most part, they are built around “special initiatives” that do not focus on the problems that matter the most in the places of greatest environmental impact. They typically operate extraneous to core business decision making in apparel firms and are nowhere to be seen in supplier qualification criteria or procurement decision making. They thus cannot adopt or make use of a program like Clean by Design.
None of this “wandering” in a sustainability journey is necessary. To the contrary, the destination and path forward to reducing your environmental footprint is clear. Let me describe how sustainability programs can become professional and effective in delivering environmental results.
First, apply these programs to mainstream, core production. The fashion industry’s sustainability efforts have been typically launched around a unique item or capsule collection designed to draw attention to the cause, rather than around a company’s mainstream production. As Timo Rissanen of The New School’s Parsons School of Design recently noted, the world already has enough organic T-shirts to last a lifetime. These small-scale efforts barely move the needle to reducing impacts, and they should be put to rest.
Focus where it matters the most — in the hot spots of your environmental impact — rather than where it is easiest to start. Companies adopting corporate sustainability beyond small collections are usually focused on their retail stores and corporate offices, keeping themselves busy by reducing their air-conditioning, converting to efficient lighting, recycling cardboard packaging, and the like. All good moves, but these efforts address a minuscule percentage of environmental impact. The pollution footprint is disproportionately in your manufacturing.
Get to know your supply chain. The opacity of most companies’ supply chains beyond Tier 1 further exacerbates the problem of focusing on small problems instead of big ones. Most companies report that they have direct business relationships only with the factories that cut, sew and package the final goods. They do not work with, nor do they usually even know the names of, the factories that dye and finish their fabric, which is where their environmental impacts predominantly occur (along with farms growing their fiber).
Audit the factories in your supply chain to assess environmental performance. Those few companies that do know the locations where most of their fabric is made seldom audit those factories for environmental performance; their audits are limited to Tier 1 factories where they query worker issues. If the companies do know anything about environmental matters at their textile mills, the information has usually been self-reported by the factory and is generally unreliable. This failure to gather valid information on environmental performance is a red flag to environmental professionals that a company’s sustainability program lacks seriousness.
Factor environmental performance into your supplier qualification and evaluation system. Even those companies that do collect data on the environmental performance of their suppliers almost never factor that performance into their supplier qualification or evaluation systems; the information is not used in any way by sourcing department buyers. As a result, there are no business consequences for environmental behavior, and fabric mills lack incentive to innovate or improve their environmental performance.
If, contrary to the above, your sourcing department is using valid environmental performance information in its supplier qualification and evaluation system, congratulations! You have reached a meaningful sustainability destination. Sadly, only a small handful of companies I know have crossed this finish line.
Globalization has brought apparel manufacturing to developing countries around the world that are completely unprepared to manage its heavy environmental impacts. But luckily, it doesn’t have to be this way. We have the tools it takes to embrace a clear path forward. It’s thus past time for this industry to transition away from its amateurish efforts and develop a serious and professional environmental protection program.
Linda Greer is a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, where she has worked for more than 20 years on industrial toxic chemical pollution.