In the quest for true apparel and textile supply chain circularity and sustainability, experts are in agreement on at least one factor: it takes a village.
“Brands can do their part, but the industry needs to work together to achieve results,” said Alice Hartley, senior manager for sustainable innovation at Gap Inc., speaking at the Cotton Incorporated Cotton Sustainability Summit in San Diego Wednesday. “It’s going to take a systemwide sustainability model.”
As a cotton-centric brand, Hartley said Gap and other brands should, as the bridge between the supply chain and the consumer, recognize that consumers are “trusting us to do our homework and make sure that if we’re offering you something that is a more sustainable cotton, we have reason to make that claim.”
It’s important, she noted, for companies to set targets and make them public, saying “I truly believe those messages trickle out to the consumer.”
Sean Desmond, vice president of sales and marketing at Bonded Logic Inc., discussed how his company works with Cotton Inc.’s Blue Jeans Go Green Campaign to turn recycled denim into industrial insulation and the potential for further fiber recycling efforts.
“Our company represents a real-world example of following the principals of the circular economy,” Desmond said. “The core of our business is using as close to 100 of recycled materials as possible. A big part of the value that we bring to the table is that we’re very smart with our material selections. We use healthy materials like cotton fibers and most times they’re from a recycled source.”
Bonded Logic has seen consumer sentiment “really tilt in this direction,” Desmond said, which has allowed it to get into major retailers like Home Depot and Lowe’s and opened opportunities to “replace petroleum-based home products.”
The technology has advanced to the point of being able to take a pair of jeans and run it through Bonded Logic’s machinery and remove all aspects, breaking it down to the fiber level to then be processed into reusable materials.
The concepts of supply chain sustainability and circularity, as Hartley noted, are complimentary but not always on the same track.
“In sustainability we spend a lot of time thinking about impact and footprint of materials, and that’s really important and we’re not going to stop doing that,” she said. “But we do also have to get out of our comfort zone and challenge ourselves to look farther into the future.”
By way of example, she cited soil health–“we have to figure out how to push the frontier there,” what she called “climate change resiliency,” and “fiber security,” noting that Gap is a major purchaser of cotton fabric and end product but not a grower, still needs to still be concerned about the future of the raw material.
“For instance, we should be thinking 20 years out about where cotton is going to come from,” Hartley said, citing “water stress” across the world including “hot spots in northern Asia” that could impact the future of arable land.
In addition, she said the industry needs to “decouple profitability” from the needed investment in research. Concepts such as circular business levels “help us to do that because it’s about the value to our customer.”
“It’s not just selling them a singular product and then saying to them ‘we’re going to see you in a few months when you come back’ and make their next purchase,” Hartley said. “It’s keeping the customer relationship going in a way that we don’t often think about. I think there’s opportunities there that are just starting to be explored and that can really be a nice build off all the supply chain sustainability that we’re trying to do.”
Michael Kobori, vice president of sustainability for Levi Strauss & Co., agreed that the consumer is driving brands to dive deeper into sustainable and circular practices, particularly Gen Z.
“Before we can start talking to this generation about the areas like footprint reduction, we have to get our ducks in order,” Kobori said. “They want the facts and they will research it.”
By next year, he said, Levi’s will be using 100 percent sustainable cotton in its products, and its Water Less Jeans production, a technology it shared with the industry, that reduces water usage in manufacturing will upscale to from two-thirds of all production today to 80 percent by 2020, among other environmental efforts, all of which needs and is being communicated to young consumers in-store and through its advertising and marketing.
Desmond said Bonded Logic’s business model and the industry and consumer mindset today means that anytime the company looks into a new raw materials source or product idea, “it has to based on how does this fit into the scheme of the circular economy. It’s critical to all our decision making.”
Participation in Cotton Inc.’s Blue Jeans Go Green program fits into Gap’s approach to sustainability and circularity because it deals with end of life of the product. Gap is also participating with in-store collection with the City of New York in a pilot program for recycling.