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ESG Outlook: Ben Mead of Hohenstein on Putting Data Behind Sustainability Claims

ESG Outlook is Sourcing Journal’s discussion series with industry executives to get their take on their company’s latest environmental, social and governance initiatives and their own personal efforts toward sustainability. In this Q&A, Ben Mead, managing director, Hohenstein Institute America, discusses why brands doing good sustainability work should talk about it more. 

Ben Mead Hohenstein America Oeko-Tex
Ben Mead, managing director, Hohenstein Institute America Courtesy

Name: Ben Mead

Title: Managing Director

Company: Hohenstein Institute America

What do you consider to be your company’s best ESG-related achievement over the last 5 years?

Hohenstein considers safety and sustainability in all its work, including quality- and performance-focused projects. We also conduct applied research that is focused on putting data behind claims and product development, from digital prototyping to reduce design footprint or returns to microfibers, biodegradation and GMOs. The most visibly impactful achievement may be in helping many brands and retailers integrate OEKO-TEX® into their ESG strategies and supply chains as efforts and programs around facilities, chemical selection and product safety have increased.

What is your personal philosophy on shopping and caring for your clothes? How do you try to minimize the environmental impact of the clothes you buy?

From a shopping standpoint, I look to buy from companies that I know are putting a lot of effort into ESG activities. I think that is easier when you’re connected to the industry. Some of the brands that are doing a lot of good work don’t always talk about it. So, the industry insight makes it easier for me than the everyday shopper who doesn’t have quick access to those efforts. In general, I try to find things that are multifunctional and will last a long time. Of course, being a textile chemist by training, product comfort, performance and the RSL safety are also important.

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How much do you look into a brand’s social or environmental practices before shopping? 

I shop companies I know and work with because I have a deeper insight into what they are doing behind the scenes. Absent that inside information, I would rely on 3rd party certifications to substantiate claims over a company’s self-declarations.

Anything new you are doing to boost sustainability beyond the fashion industry?

I live in rural Indiana, so I have the luxury of a home garden, fruit trees, etc., which I really enjoy both from the hobby side and the production side. It’s a common topic around our family dinner table to recognize that we know the farmer or the source of most ingredients and that they are coming from within a narrow radius. Of course, that’s easier in the summer.

What would you say is the biggest misconception consumers have about sustainability in fashion?

Many U.S. consumers believe that if it’s so harmful, the government wouldn’t let it be on the market. While we see regulation in some areas, there is a big misconception that the U.S. market must have the strictest requirements for chemicals in textiles. That’s simply not true.

There is also a misconception that more sustainable fashion is unattainable. A perfect product doesn’t exist but there are opportunities for consumers to find products that are better in areas that are important to them. And when they find those, hopefully something else wasn’t sacrificed. It’s important that any claim (including sustainability) should be made in a way that is not misleading.

What was your company’s biggest takeaway from the Covid crisis?  

The acceleration of digitization and sustainability. Consumers seem to be shopping in different ways and they are spending more time researching product sustainability attributes. They aren’t always trying on products before they buy them, so digital fitting and digital presentation are more important than ever. It’s vital to get a product in the hands of the consumer and to make sure they don’t return it.  At the same time, the brands have been disrupted. Sourcing and tech design teams working from home need trusted experts for ESG evaluations, digitized materials and product development workflows that have been (temporarily or permanently) altered.

What is your company’s latest sustainability-related initiative?

As a service provider, we are always researching for better solutions. A couple new solutions are a GMO quantification methodology for cotton to help confirm if GMO presence might be contamination or intentional. OEKO-TEX® has recently integrated a carbon and water footprint tool into the STeP certification, so I see that data as a big asset to companies. And, even though digital material and fitting tools might not automatically jump out as sustainability initiatives, I see a lot of opportunity in reduced samples/prototypes, fewer shipments of material, reduction of lead times and better fit development for lower returns.

What do you consider to be the apparel industry’s biggest missed opportunity related to securing meaningful change?

We still see questions in the industry around if consumers are willing to pay for sustainability—and if so, how much? I think commitment to supply chains is related to that. If the sustainability initiatives do cost more, then the partnership between buyer and supplier is critical. As a closing thought, customers seem to want more supply chain transparency, but not generic transparency. Customers buy products from brands they like and trust, so they want to know specifics about the individual products. Every consumer might not look at the details, but we see the right to information as an increasing trend.