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Pandemic Threatens Progress in Sustainable Material Uptake—But Could Catalyze Sector, Too

With the mega-focus on coronavirus and the health and economic impact on society, there are concerns it might supersede and potentially circumvent progress and ongoing efforts toward adoption of more sustainable materials in textile and apparel.

Risks to progress

In an interview with IHS Markit vice chairman Daniel Yergin, Dow chairman and CEO Jim Fitterling said, “We’ve seen a big change in sentiment” toward plastics.

“Probably the most dramatic are the grocery stores and retailers saying we don’t want reusable bags coming into the stores,” Fitterling said. “We’d rather issue you a clean, new, sanitary disposable one-time bag. Safety, health, hygiene and security have come to the top of the list. I don’t believe that some of the issues that we face on plastics longer-term will go away. But I do think people are recognizing the value of plastics and chemicals and how they can be helpful in this fight.”

Oeko-Tex this month said it is adapting its processes for renewing certificates and reducing the effort of production facilities. The organization, which awards a range of certificates based on criteria involving manufacturing methods, chemical usage and product composition, said while renewals of certificates and new applications should continue to be carried out as far as possible, the production processes of retailers and companies should not be interrupted.

Due to the global pandemic, Oeko-Tex said renewal of these certificates is currently handled without any submission of samples. “This service can only be offered to existing production facilities, as the Oeko-Tex Association has confidence in them and their products,” the organization said.

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Certified retailers, Oeko-Tex noted, are not affected in their manufacturing processes. The labels will not be identified as invalid and “regions that are vastly affected by the virus will suspend all tests until further notice,” it said. “Their work may resume when the extraordinary situation has calmed down.”

The Apparel Impact Institute has suspended site visits for all facilities and will resume them when it is safe, according to the group’s president Lewis Perkins.

“We have not cancelled programs for 2020 but instead are leaning into the activities which occur outside the usual on-the-ground interactions,” Perkins said in an outreach to members and the industry. “We’re continuing our expansion of multinational brands involved in program-level facility improvement work, with 12 brands signed on to participate as of March and another 13 brands evaluating participation plans. The programming includes a growing portfolio of supply chain offerings, with the majority of the work in wet-processing facilities, known to be hotspots for environmental impact reductions in the apparel supply chain.”

The institute, he said, is still “staying the course” in helping its partners meet their goals and remains open to ideas to better meet the needs of the industry.

Keeping the mission going

In that vein, most believe the sustainability efforts of the industry will be undaunted and that there’s even a connection between the pandemic and the sector’s environmental goals of cleaning up the supply chain.

“I can see around me that the priority is the health crisis, but people can also see that globalization effects everything,” said Giusy Bettoni, CEO of CLASS, a Milan-based hub for sustainable textiles. “People are also much more interested in where products are coming from and how they are made. It may not be called sustainability, but we always said sustainability starts at what you are wearing, what you are eating, what you are buying and how people are doing it.”

For Bettoni, the pandemic provides a time to go even deeper into these factors, she said, and how they impact people’s lives and the environment, as well as transparency and traceability. In addition, the move in the industry toward water conservation and reductions in carbon emissions was always based on public health and how the textile industry can create a better way that incorporates those goals.

“In a way, the reaction to the coronavirus crisis is through responsible innovation, and that has also been the way we and the industry have approached sustainable materials for the fashion industry,” she said. “We at CLASS believe the kind of journey that we started, putting the environment and people at the center is going in the right direction and technology will help out because it’s creating a new way to produce and a new way to do business. And the consumer will not accept us going backward.”

Peter Templeton, president and CEO of Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, said the current crisis has challenged every organization to assess its immediate priorities.

“This crisis has reminded every individual and organization of the need and potential of coordinated collaboration and action for addressing immediate global challenges,” Templeton said. “As the topics of preparedness and risk management rise to the top of every organization’s agenda, there’s an unprecedented opportunity to ensure that health, resiliency and sustainability are embedded in plans for future growth and action. By using this time to reset approaches to production and consumption in ways that prioritize humans and the environment, we can transform the global pipeline of materials and products that power our economy into one that is safe, circular and responsible. “

He said the financial sector is already sending clear messages that the companies that maintain and tighten their focus on environmental and social well-being and effective governance during this time are not only positioned for the strongest post-pandemic recovery, but they also stand to outperform the companies that may choose to relax standards, even temporarily.

“With this in mind, rather than focus on potential aftermath problems, this is a critical time for companies to focus on designing and implementing aftermath solutions that can help safeguard against future crises, including the implementation of standards like Cradle to Cradle Certified that offers a science-based, multi-attribute solution for making safe and circular products in ways that prioritize environmental responsibility and strong, healthy communities,” Templeton added.

Donna Worley, director of marketing, communications and public relations at Textile Exchange, said the organization has always advocated long-term planning and supply chain partnerships to meet material sustainability goals.

“The most successful companies have embedded these goals and progress towards adopting standards as part of how they do business,” Worley said. “For many companies, sustainability has shifted away from an optional add-on and has become foundational to their businesses and we believe the pandemic will only underscore the importance of this business model.”

However, Textile Exchange anticipates that the global pandemic and the economic disturbance will certainly change timelines and will create an even greater need to keep communication between suppliers and buyers open, she said.

“For some suppliers that have planned to become certified for the first time in 2020, this will only be possible if auditors are able to safely visit in person,” she said. “Until that is possible, we encourage brands and retailers to adjust their timelines and deadlines for compliance with those suppliers that are just getting started with certification. For suppliers that are already certified, remote audits will be possible in many cases, but brands should still proactively communicate with suppliers and make contingency plans in case timings are disrupted.”

Worley added that Textile Exchange is actively working to prevent the pandemic from resulting in companies unable to renew existing certification.