A fix for some of fashion’s worst hotspots

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Flickr user Lauren (cuttlefish)

A tee shirt or a pair of jeans may seem basic items. Most of us own several, and purchasing them requires little effort, whether you go to the store or shop online. Yet even the most basic items in our wardrobe can be associated with many different environmental impacts, due to the complexity of the apparel industry’s global supply chain.

When we go shopping, most Americans think of our clothing as coming from a certain store or brand. These brands are typically responsible for designing, marketing and selling clothes—but they are usually not the owners of the factories where the clothes are sewn together, nor the fabric mills where the cloth is made and dyed, and definitely not the fields where the fibers are grown or the factories where synthetic fabrics are spun. All of these steps along the way of creating a garment belong to suppliers that are usually located in developing countries, and each is associated with its own set of environmental costs. Some of the steps have particularly heavy costs, one of which are mills where fabric is made.

Linda Greer, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), describes fabric mills as one of the apparel industry’s “hotspots”—producing cotton is another. Making fabric uses a lot of water, energy and chemicals, and it’s often done in places where resources are cheap and environmental regulations are lax. It is also a difficult point along the supply chain to address, not only because it’s so removed from the end consumer, but also because it operates at arm’s length from their more immediate customer, the multinational brands that buy the fabric.

The NRDC is working to tackle this hotspot with its Clean by Design program, which Greer directs. “We’ve been focusing on fabric mills in Clean by Design, because that’s the dying and finishing part where the impact is the biggest,” said Greer.

Seven years ago, when Greer began working on pollution problems in China, she quickly realized that pushing on government agencies wouldn’t be effective. So, the NRDC created a program that works with businesses towards sustainability with the promise of saving money through resource efficiency.

The program has been implemented in about 200 mills, with close benchmarking and tracking in about 50. Clean by Design identifies ten best practices for mills. To save water, they recommended detecting leaks, reusing rinse water as well as cooling water. To improve energy efficiency, they encourage better insulation and heat recovery systems.

“The program that we run is very well-researched, has a very long track record of success, identifies opportunities that by definition are low-cost, is easy to implement, has a big impact and saves money,” said Greer.

Yet it can still be a hard sell to factories. “I would say that the biggest problem we have is the lack of motivation by the mills,” said Greer. “The program is stellar, but it’s a solution in search of a problem.”

The NRDC partners with major apparel manufacturers like Target and Levi’s to help bring Clean by Design to their supply chain. The “problem” needs to be that the buying brands are either requiring more sustainable practices or giving extra points for it, Greer said. When a brand participates in Clean by Design, they identify their top suppliers and encourage them to measure and improve their resource use.

One company that’s seen success with the Clean by Design program is VF, the parent company of brands such as Lee, Wrangler, Vans and The North Face.

“You get different responses from different suppliers,” said Adam Mott, Director of Sustainability for The North Face. “There's this feeling from a lot of them that they don't need help. But then you've got others that once they see it can save them money, and actually strengthen their relationship with their customer, they're willing to work on it.”

VF targeted the mills that are high-volume suppliers for the Clean by Design program, and has been able to increase resource efficiency by 20 percent. “Overall the entire program was very well accepted,” said Sean Cady, the Vice President of Global Responsible Sourcing for VF.

“We don’t see it necessarily as us putting pressure on our supply chain,” said Cady. “We see it as a partnership, and we have very key long-term suppliers where we share a lot of information and they share with us.”

Cady and Greer agreed on two major challenges for Clean by Design. First, the program competes for resources that could be invested elsewhere. “A number of the recommendations may have high capital costs,” said Cady. “Let’s take the example of changing out the boiler to a more efficient one. That’s a few hundred thousand dollars investment for a factory.” Even if the investment would pay off in energy or water savings in a few years, the mill may have a different priority for that money.

Secondly, there’s a problem with “technical capacity”—or in other words, a lack of education among the mill operators. “These factories are sometimes run by people that never finished high school, let alone college, let alone business or engineering school,” said Greer. “It becomes almost like a literacy program.”

The NRDC is looking into ways to speed up the education process, such as technical workshops, and using the learnings from one mill as an example for others. Cady said that in Vietnam, VF was able to bring together several of its suppliers for a walk-through with an energy auditor in one factory. “It was a great collaborative environment, even though some of the factories were competitors," he said. “They were all learning together how to be more energy efficient.”

Clean by Design isn’t the only environmental program that’s working to reduce problems in the textile supply chain. Greer said that the NRDC hasn’t focused as much on the issues around cotton growing, which uses huge amounts of water and pesticides, because organizations like Textile Exchange are working to address that problem.

VF has also been working on the issue of toxic chemicals in its supply chain. They’ve been working with Bluesign to eliminate harmful substances from their suppliers’ textile production at a few factories. More recently, the company been developing another program called Chem-IQ, with help from the NRDC and the testing company MTS. The North Face’s Adam Mott said Chem-IQ is a cheaper screening tool they one day hope to roll out to all VF suppliers. They’ve been using the tests in mills for about a year now, and have already started eliminating harmful chemicals from their supply chain.

The next step for the Clean by Design program will be bringing it to a larger scale. Although the program has worked with nearly two hundred mills, there are some 15,000 textile mills in China alone, and more in other developing counties. The NRDC has partnered with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to develop benchmarking for their members. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition is an industry group whose members represent an impressive 40 percent of the global clothing manufacturers. Although Greer feels this group has been slow to make progress across the board, she said it’s moving in the right direction.

The end consumer, all of us who shop at department stores and online, could also make a difference when we buy our wardrobe basics by asking more questions about where our purchases come from and how they are made. There’s the feeling among many in the apparel industry that shoppers aren’t willing to pay for the higher costs associated with more sustainable products, but in a world where the supply chain is starting to become more visible that could change.

“Scandals become so visible and visceral,” thanks to social media and other awareness campaigns, said Greer. Protecting a brand’s reputation may be a strong motivation for more apparel companies to start to look closer at their supply chain. “It’s not exactly consumer-driven, but it’s still driven by public opinion. Not at the cash register, more like at the stockholder meetings.”

A fix for some of fashion’s worst hotspots
Clean by Design offers a solution for one of the fashion industry's biggest problem areas: the fabric mill.

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