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Apparel Brands Must Act Now and Rethink Sustainability

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The apparel industry has had a tough time of late, but companies can find some solace among all the stress.

Data, a plural of datum, a Latin word that means “gift” or “something given,” is exactly what all the in-store, mobile and online analytics on the market today provide—presents. And decision-makers need to learn to embrace these tools—and do the research—before embarking on any new missions.

“We have a lot of gifts all around us that we don’t use, or don’t ask for,” said independent sustainability consultant Lorraine Smith, speaking recently during a discussion about transparency at Texworld USA in New York City. “The more truth we look for, the better decisions we will make.”

Karla Magruder, founder and president of Fabrikology International, agreed, pointing to Nike as an example. “Their data gifts are really great information on what the world is going to look like,” she said. “They do research and they recognize for them to be the kind of company they want to be they have to change how they do business.”

Indeed, the Swoosh has come a long way since its days of sweatshop scandals. But Smith said Nike is the exception, not the rule, and companies shouldn’t sit back and wait for shoppers to point out what they’re doing wrong.

“And it shouldn’t be an excuse to give them crappy information because it’s not true or not know that we’re doing harm,” Smith said. “If I wait for consumers to notice, I might have waited too long.”

That being said, Magruder noted that no matter what route a company might take, somebody, somewhere, will say it’s the wrong one. Take down, for example. There are plenty of companies harvesting down in perfectly sustainable ways, she said, but the flipside is these ducks are only being slaughtered because somebody is eating duck meat. That upsets some people.

“There isn’t a hard and fast rule for everything,” she said.

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In the case of cotton, the conventional side will say it’s not possible to grow everything organically because it’s much too difficult, while some proponents of organic claim that Better Cotton is bad. But Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) would tell you it wants to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in and better for the sector’s future.

“All of us should be making progress and need to be making progress that’s appropriate to where we are,” Magruder said.

Read: Why Eco-Friendly Materials Are Central to Sustainability Strategies

Smith agreed, but also encouraged companies to listen to all sides of the argument. “Perspective is really important. Regardless of what situation you’re in, open your mind to why they are so passionate about this,” she said. “We’re going to collectively win if we listen to the truth.”

Dina Dunn, founder and chief executive of marketing agency Blink, added, “Your business will thrive if you are watching over the environment, watching over workers…Businesses are much more brittle if you’re only focused on price. Sustainability will ultimately help you make better decisions.”

Something else worth considering is regulation. As much as the apparel industry hates it, it isn’t such a bad thing, but brands don’t need to wait for the government to step in and tell them what to do.

That’s the very reason why the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) created the Higg Index. Recognizing that state, local and national regulation will require increased transparency and compliance on a growing number of environmental and social issues, SAC formed Higg under the guiding principle of improving sustainability performance “beyond compliance,” so the industry could get a head start.

“Nobody wants regulation,” Macgruder said. “In truth, if everybody keeps doing better and our supply chains get cleaner, and these certifications and standards grow and grow, you won’t need them anymore because the supply chain will have cleaned itself.”