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New Developments in Driving Supply Chain Sustainability

New developments and ideas for driving sustainability in the textile industry were key topics covered at the Textile Exchange (TE) 12th annual sustainability conference in Portland, Ore. last week.

The conference was an opportunity to highlight the challenges and success stories around sustainable cotton initiatives, recycled fibers, waterless dyeing, chemical discharge, PVC and phthalate-free printing, animal welfare, and restricted substance lists. It also brought forward new ways of looking at sustainability through the creation of local agricultural systems and collaborative supply chains that create value for growers, manufacturers, brands/retailers, and ultimately for consumers–and that tie sustainability to the bottom line.

“Our current supply systems are imploding. We need to create new networks and systems, creating value by understanding and integrating agricultural realities,” Dr. Sam Moore, managing director of the Hohenstein Institute America.

The concept of a value chain is based on creating and keeping value within a local region, allowing each part of the sourcing group to earn a reasonable profit, which promotes reinvestment as well as transparency. “Value is not more for less,” insisted LaRhea Pepper, TE managing director.

Dr. Moore suggested building more value into the cotton cycle by using the 50 percent of cottonseed oil that is currently unextracted to create surfactants, lubricants, emulsifiers and fabric softeners that could be used in the sustainable production of cotton fabric. By building ginning and extraction facilities near farming communities, some of the value would return to the source, he said.

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While the emphasis in the value chain model is not on driving down costs to provide “more for less,” the end result can benefit the retailer and consumer as well. For example, consider the cost savings in processing, spinning, and manufacturing cloth from cotton or wool near the fiber’s source, as opposed to shipping domestic cotton overseas to be spun, and then buying the yarn and sending it to another location to be made into fabric, and so on through the supply chain.

Examples of existing collaborative value chain models were presented at the conference, including the South Africa Sustainable Textile Cluster (SASTAC) and New Zealand Merino. In both cases, representatives from local government, farmers and producers, and brands/retailers came together to create an integrated supply chain based on long-term contracts with the farmers.

The local collaborations maximized efficiency and transparency, stabilized raw material prices, and secured increased profit for both the producers and brands/retailers. Those collaborating also establishing themselves as viable ingredient brands, and gained global recognition with consumers as traceable sources of textile materials.

In the U.S., Cotton of the Carolinas is a transparent value chain producing screen-printed T-shirts made from locally-grown and processed cotton within 600 miles of the company’s headquarters in Burlington, N.C. It was established in 2008 by screen printer TS Designs and some local partners with a business model focused on “people, planet, and profits.”

TS Designs’ unique printing method, called Rehance, prints with water-based inks. Their organic T-shirt developed for Farm Aid 2014 in Raleigh can be traced “from dirt to shirt” on the website nc.farmaid.org. “We’re providing a transparent supply chain that connects the consumer to the farmer,” said Eric Henry, the company’s President.

In California, Rebecca Burgess established Fibershed when she found that local farmers in the San Geronimo Valley of Marin County could not get their wool or cotton into the commodity market, and undertook a detailed analysis of the local food and fiber industries.

Burgess’ concept of a Fibershed is “a geographical landscape that defines and gives boundaries to a natural textile resource base.” It is designed to facilitate innovations that support and improve a region’s regenerative and community-driven textile supply chain, providing living wage jobs.

After Adam Mott, director of sustainability for The North Face, met Burgess 18 months ago, the two collaborated with California’s Sustainable Cotton Project to launch The Backyard Project at TNF, with the goal of manufacturing apparel within 150 miles of the company’s headquarters near San Francisco.

While the project was extended to North Carolina in order to spin and knit the fabric for its inaugural garment, the limited edition hoodie was made from California-grown, Fox Colored Cotton and local long-staple Pima, and was cut and sewn close to home.

The costs of domestic production were somewhat mitigated by the design of garment, which maximised fabric utilization and eliminated waste. The limited edition hoodie will retail at $120, starting in December.

Whether these new business models based on value can be scaled up to mass market remains to be seen; but as they begin to resonate with consumers, the costs imbedded in the current system of mass production will become more transparent.

For example, the value of natural capital to businesses—clean air, water, and arable land—is estimated to be $7.3 trillion; and yet most textile and apparel companies do not value natural resources in their balance sheets, according to Libby Bernick, senior VP of North America for Trucost, a London-based research firm.

Bernick believes we need to “translate environmental jargon into business terms” to help companies realize the full value of natural capital. She told the conference that in the next 20 years we will be challenged to feed, clothe, and house an additional two billion middle class consumers on the planet.

If we do not change current business practices, she said, we will need 40 percent more water, 33 percent more energy, and suffer from increasingly volatile commodity prices.

The creation of more local “value chains” with inherently embedded sustainability could help create a new equilibrium within the textile and apparel system, while holistically improving its environmental footprint.