The environment and garment workers win big when socially conscious consumers support a cleaner fashion industry.
In the not too distant past, the apparel industry was plagued by stories of unfair labor practices and irresponsible environmental stewardship. The 1990s brought factories with deplorable working conditions into the limelight, and the following decades saw a growing awareness of the ecological harm caused by clothing production.
With a myriad of supply chain layers that range from cotton farmers to textile mills to cargo transport, garment industry leaders have struggled to keep tabs on every aspect of production. While there is no quick fix for such a complex system, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) is using big data to help its members bring cleaner, more ethical products to consumers’ homes.
The SAC guides some of the industry’s biggest brands on the path to enlightenment through factory audits and a shared knowledge base. When one coalition member succeeds in reclaiming minerals from wastewater, or pioneers new manufacturing efficiencies, that knowledge is shared with other brands in the name of the greater good.
Raising standards industry-wide is “a race to the top,” says Levi’s VP of sustainability Michael Kobori of the collaborative spirit of coalition members. As part of the brand’s Water<Less initiative, Levi’s open sourced their water-saving techniques so that competitors, too, would have the tools to preserve one of the planet’s most precious resources.
The SAC uses data gathered from participating labels to quantify the environmental and social performance of manufacturers’ facilities to help identify hotspots and keep suppliers accountable.
Eileen Fisher, a brand champion of the sustainability movement, recognizes that there’s still plenty of work ahead. Particular focus is given to the well-being of the industry’s most vulnerable workers, many of whom live in developing nations and support families with income brought in by weaving scarves and other products for the label.
And Adidas, one of the first companies to ban chlorofluorocarbons (CFC), is in it for the long haul.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” one brand leader acknowledges about the challenges ahead. Developing efficient patterns that use less energy and materials is a priority moving forward, as is incorporating more environmentally-friendly components.
Fans of Swedish outfitters, Fjällräven, reduce their carbon footprints by investing in durable, heirloom quality equipment. Eco-conscious outdoor folks value their long-lasting goods and responsible production methods.
With their roots in the outdoors, Fjällräven is committed to leaving more than just sturdy backpacks for the next generation. Swedish for arctic fox, Fjällräven funds vital research for the preservation of its namesake, a threatened species.
When more brands embrace ethical manufacturing practices, expectations lift for the industry at large. Many SAC members are going above and beyond compliance, and consumers are noticing. Acting with integrity is “in our DNA,” declares Burberry, who cut mill water usage by 20 percent and banned PFCs — chemicals whose global warming potential is thousands of times greater than carbon dioxide, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The activist group Greenpeace is pushing for stricter regulations on chemical use in the textile industry and has generated buzz with their “Detox Our Future" awareness campaign. Modern consumers crave transparency about how their clothing is made, and in the end, have the power to vote with their wallets.
In an increasingly globalized society, it makes sense to plan for the next generation, not just the next season. Meeting the demands of socially conscious shoppers is a win/win for garment workers and the environment.
The spirit of true sustainability is not only in doing less bad, but in doing more good.