It’s time clothing designers demand sustainable fabrics

dye room
© Flickr user JSolomon

As three major textiles trade shows converge on New York City this week, a discussion about the social and environmental costs of fabric—and by extension fashion—seems timely. When designers and brand buyers select the fabrics that will be used in future seasons, it becomes clear for a moment what a big impact these choices can have on the supply chain.

“Designers have a lot of responsibility,” said Loomstate founder Scott Mackinlay Hahn, at a panel discussion during the trade show Première Vision yesterday. This was a reoccurring theme of the discussion: that designers can play an important role in holding textile makers responsible.

According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, 85.9 million metric tons of textiles were produced in 2011. China dominates the production of textiles, accounting for 63 percent of global output, followed by India and the United States. Globalized and outsourced textile manufacturing is a major cause of water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and exploitative labor practices.

Melissa Joy Manning, a member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Sustainability Committee, said that there also needs to be more education for designers. “We have to empower them to ask the right questions,” she said.

Eileen Fisher is one company that’s been working with its textile suppliers to improve environmental practices. “It’s been a tremendous journey and we’ve made some progress,” said Inka Apter, Manager of Fabric Research and Development. She said that for fabric makers to change their practices, brands have to ask for it.

While implementing a more sustainable practice can sometimes be a simple conversation, Apter also spoke about the need for collaborating with suppliers while sustainable practices are still a relatively small part of the market. Eileen Fisher worked with one dye house in China for three years to help them become Bluesign certified. “It helps that we have long-standing relationships with our suppliers,” said Apter.

“The market is key, but the real change comes from the mills,” said Philippe Pasquet, CEO of Première Vision. “Designers set the pace, but they can’t do it by themselves.”

To help designers find better suppliers, Giusy Bettoni has created C.L.A.S.S., which works as a kind of library or showcase of sustainable fabrics. “A lot of the fabric makers don’t feel it’s commercially feasible to create responsible products,” she said. Her work shows that it can be done.

Mackinlay Hahn urged designers to stop buying material from manufacturers who aren’t taking steps to reduce their environmental impact. He believes the textile mills that embrace eco-friendly practices have a competitive edge. “The mills that are ahead of this curve will increase their market share.”

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