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There’s More Cheating Going on in Sustainability Than You Think

When it comes to sustainability, some companies are making fabric out of discarded orange peels to curb impact and find uses for waste, and others are making denim the traditional way, sticking a “waterless” label on it and shipping it as sustainable when it’s nothing of the sort.

That was the sobering reality Edward Hertzman, Sourcing Journal founder and publisher delivered at the recent Textile Exchange Sustainability Conference in Washington, D.C.

[Read more about what happened at Textile Exchange: Pivot or Die: The Megatrends That Will Capsize Your Supply Chain if You’re Not Paying Attention]

In Bangladesh, one factory—with no advanced machinery or technologies—was producing waterless denim for a major brand, Hertzman said. When prompted about how it was possible for that product to be coming out of that factory, the factory executive said, “We just put the label on it and ship it.”

In China, one factory producing for a so-dubbed sustainable brand sold in stores like Whole Foods and Nordstrom and managed by an agent in Hong Kong, provided no transaction certificates or other proof that it was producing the product with organic cotton. When prompted about how they are sure the factory is supplying organic cotton, the agent said, “Well, because we asked them to make it with that.”

“It would be safe to say that what they have is not organic,” Hertzman said. And he added, “When I go to a factory and I see them just putting a label on that says waterless, it undermines the whole process.”

For brands like Coyuchi, that have built their businesses based on sustainable materials and practices, facts like this are grating.

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“Whatever a customer is asking for is just a check box,” Eileen Mockus, CEO of the organic linens company, said. “The challenge is to present yourself as a brand that’s doing more than just a check box.”

Is sustainability an ethos or just propaganda?

There will likely always be a line between brands that care about sustainability because they actually care and those that care because they know they have to because every move they make can suddenly spread through social media like wildfire—and no one wants bad press.

But beyond whether a brand really cares or not, many don’t understand what it really costs to cultivate organic cotton, what it really costs to install a water treatment facility, what it really costs to bring in laser machines and eliminate sandblasting. Many don’t understand what sustainability really costs at all. And many aren’t willing to pay up for it either.

“The brands want a more sustainable supply chain but they refuse to acknowledge the costs that are associated with it,” Hertzman said. “Not only do they not want to pay more, they want a price reduction.”

That, he said, is part of what’s driving unethical practices when it comes to sustainability—a concept that’s, by design, intended to be more ethical.

“I come from a brand where we do care and we do pay more,” Mockus said. “We have to factor in what it takes to make our product cost more, then it’s our challenge on the marketing side to represent that value to the consumer.”

For Mockus, communicating the value of better materials and better practices may be where the industry has not yet succeeded and why sustainability remains a ways off from being mainstream.

“Maybe we aren’t really conveying the total value to the consumer, so if the T-shirts [one sustainable, the other not] are sold side by side and there’s no background on it, the consumer goes to price, color, cut and whatever those other attributes are that they’re shopping based on,” Mockus said. “Trying to remain competitive does introduce this whole other set of factors, but what I do think brands understand today, regardless of whether the company was created to create sustainable product or not, is that the customer will judge them.”

Sustainability has to be about the supply chain

One of the troubles with sustainability is that it hasn’t reached the critical mass that helps pull prices down.

When it comes to organic cotton in particular, and the costs that come with that, scale is what the industry needs next.

“There needs to be a lot more volume in the system,” Mockus said. “We’re still doing all this work and the systems are still not quite in place.”

Another problem sustainability faces is the fact that consumers expect things to be cheaper every year, U.S. Fashion Industry Association president Julie Hughes said.

“We’re in a box right now and everyone here, we want to be doing more, we have these commitments, but how do we get there?”

One answer? The supply chain.

If supply chains could be restructured, rethought to include more circularity and less waste, then it might be easier to start scaling things up.

“I think a lot of that comes back to the supply chain and we’ve got to figure out how to be more efficient,” Hertzman said.

There are factories in Bangladesh taking cotton scraps and recycling them into sweaters and other knits and major players like Inditex are buying into it, Hertzman said.

Better regulation on a global scale will help too.

In China, pollution has been such a sizeable problem that it’s held up deliveries for apparel retailers around the world. When asking one factory how he’d know when a set of goods would be delivered, Hertzman said an employee at the factory replied: “Blue sky, today. Grey sky, one week late. Black sky, maybe never.”

When the pollution is bad enough that people can’t breathe outdoors, it means truck drivers can’t drive goods to destinations either.

“The bad thing is the lack of transparency for companies to know, ‘OK, you’re not going to get your product because we’re not able to drive the trucks during the day,’” Hughes said.

And a lack of transparency also impacts how the whole thing comes down to the consumer.

“If one side of your supply chain is truly above board, how do you protect this? How do you control this? How does the consumer get a product that they know is truly sustainable? They can’t,” Mockus said.

Bringing a level of transparency like that will mean getting global brands on board with similar standards and processes—a seemingly impossible feat from where the industry currently stands.

“We are coalescing. Maybe not one standard, but we know what the basics are that you need to meet, but we are not there yet,” Hughes said.

Consumers don’t get it yet

Mockus thinks American consumers have gotten too far away from what it takes to make clothes and textiles.

“Very little is made in the U.S. anymore and I don’t think people understand how things are made,” she said. “If you lose that connection to an item, it loses its value. Why pay more? I can just buy cheaper and cheaper and I can wear more of them and when I’m done I’ll just throw it away,” she added referring to fast fashion’s impact on the glut of apparel in the market.

At the end of the day, whether it’s an ethos or propaganda, or it’s about supply chains and regulations, it still comes down to consumers.

“The consumer ultimately has the power because they’re the ones that make the purchase and I think brands play a pretty significant role based on how they’re meeting those consumers’ needs,” Mockus said.

That said, however, it’s going to be up to brands to get the message right.

“People buy a story,” Hertzman said. “It’s not just a price. Especially people who care about sustainability.”