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Can Performance and Sustainability Coexist in Apparel?

Performance hasn’t gone hand in hand with sustainability so far, but some brands in the space are hoping to change that. However, in an industry that’s among the most fragmented, where one link in the supply chain often doesn’t know what the other’s doing, the effort to collectively embrace less harmful processes for creating performance apparel could prove quite challenging.

The problem is that not enough stakeholders are rallying around the cause.

“The critical mass is not there,” Invista’s Dieter Backhaus said on a panel at the Dornbirn Man-Made Fibers Congress in Austria Thursday. “We need volumes to have a real impact.”

Reaching greater volumes of more sustainable performance wear means more consumers will have to demand it, more brands will have to want it and more mills and manufacturers will have to be on board to supply it.

That collective effort will have to start somewhere, and Lenzing’s Robert van de Kerkhof thinks it begins with design.

“We need to really simplify garment design I think as an industry. We can only contribute a little bit,” van de Kerkhof said, adding honestly that cellulose fibers can’t singlehandedly save the sector, nor can they accomplish all the performance needs of today’s apparel. “The only way we can do it is to really work with brands and retailers to simplify design.” The idea, he said, is that if sustainable thinking starts at the design stage, factoring in things like easier, more eco-friendly dyes and finishes for a style, that’s the way to see it through.

Speaking from the brand side, René Bethmann, innovation manager for German outerwear brand Vaude, said the thinking within his company does follow along those lines.

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“We’re not just going for perfect performance,” he said. “We are trying to do everything with sustainable solutions.”

Vaude has been called Germany’s most sustainable company and products under its Green Share label follow an ecosystem of sustainability, which sees that designs drawn up, substances used and processes undertaken are as sustainable as possible.

[Read more about what Vaude is doing: How Europe’s Most Sustainable Outerwear Brand Gets Consumers Interested in Eco]

To focus on finding innovative, sustainable solutions in its own business, Adidas created an Advanced Creation Team one year ago, and since then the team has already doubled. Kate Riley, who works on the Advanced Creation Team at Adidas, said that points to the company’s commitment to finding better ways to make its goods.

“My role is to look at sustainable materials and processes,” Riley said. “We’re continuously increasing our use of recycled materials. We’re using recycled polyester from PET bottles. We’re talking to different recycling companies to increase the amount of materials that we use.”

That thinking is what led Adidas to build its high-tech Speedfactory in Ansbach, Germany, where 3-D printing and innovative engineering has shortened the supply chain, made it more flexible, simplified processes like sampling and shipping those samples back and forth, and has allowed the company to bring production back to Germany.

So, with the textile side and brand side both on board to create a cleaner synthetic sector, the setback in pushing sustainability further through the performance textile supply chain has been the lack of a united front.

“When we’re just working the fairs, everyone has his or her own R&D, his or her own development. When you look at the shows, the products are more or less the same. The fabric detail is also very, very similar,” Bethmann said, highlighting the fact that brands with similar missions could benefit from some kind of shared effort on sustainability.

As Riley added, “I think from our perspective, in the past it was perhaps one part of the supply chain taking the lead. I think the time for that has changed and it’s much more about working together…I think it’s about bringing through all parts of the supply chain…and we have to do this in a sustainable way.”

But since brands won’t likely be lining up to share information with one another or work together to progress product, MAS Holdings’ Ranil Vitarana said it’s going to take government intervention.

“The industry is extremely fragmented…so I think if we wait for everyone to come together, I don’t think it’s going to happen,” he said. “I think it should be led by Europe because Europe has the most awareness. Some body or someone needs to really bring this together so we can learn who can do what in the shortest time.”

With Europe leading the charge on more sweeping sustainability efforts, which the government and NGOs could get on board with, and then bringing other countries into the fold to do something similar, the performance textile sector could start to see the sort of backward integration to push sustainability through the textile chain.

Before much, if any, progress can be made, mills, manufacturers and brands will have to determine what that best way to work together may be. And as global as the industry is, it may have to find a way to supply itself in a closer-knit way, rather than getting cotton from India and fabric from Korea and sewing in China before shipping to the United States—none of which lends itself to sustainability.

“We believe the actual chain will become much more transparent and much more horizontal,” Giuseppe Gherzi managing partner of Switzerland-based consultancy Gherzi Textil Organization, said during the panel, which he moderated.

Addressing the elephant in the room, one attendee asked of Vaude and Adidas whether they’d be willing to pay the 10 cents more per garment in order to bring performance and sustainability more in line.

“Yes. But also the end consumer needs to be willing to pay the additional price…if the consumer can also see this advantage here,” Bethmann said. “One of our future business models is that we’re producing more locally instead of from this and this and this side.”

Adidas had a similar sentiment, noting that it would take knowing what the consumer wants—and is willing to put their disposable dollars behind—to drive any of these potential supply chain changes.

“This is completely new. That would be a whole sourcing question that would need a lot of discussion and that would completely change the way we’re sourcing things now,” Riley said in response to the question. “We’re a global company, that’s who we are, so I think it’s about making things in the best way that we can.”