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ESG Outlook: Dalena White of IWTO on Transparency and Responsible Behavior

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, Dalena White, secretary general of International Wool Textile Organisation, discusses wool’s inherent benefits and how to counter rampant greenwashing.

Dalena White IWTO International Wool Textile Organisation
Dalena White, secretary general, International Wool Textile Organisation Courtesy

Name: Dalena White

Title: Secretary General

Company: International Wool Textile Organisation

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

The International Wool Textile Organisation is a not-for-profit (AISBL) member organization, representing 34 members from 23 countries, with members active in various parts of the wool pipeline, from farm to retail.

Wool farmers adhere to very strict national legislation pertaining to animal welfare, and a summary of their activities and the relevant legislation can be found in the IWTO Wool Sheep Welfare Specifications. IWTO Working Groups focus on pertinent questions being asked by consumers and fund research to clarify sustainability issues and with peer reviewed science.

The Wool LCA Technical Advisory Group published the first full Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) for a wool garment, after 7 years of research, and IWTO Members actively support the circular economy. The Recycled Wool supplier list offers a summary of recycled wool options, and IWTO Members offer full traceability in wool. Wool is being traded around the world and markets depend on strict quality control measures to ensure the correct value is allocated to the correct shipment. IWTO Standards require all testing laboratories to be evaluated once a year and to adhere to strict international standards, with IWTO licensed laboratories listed on the webpage.

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What is your personal philosophy on shopping and caring for your clothes?  

I prefer investing in classic, high-quality pieces in neutral colors and avoid purchasing any designs/shapes that would date quickly. I enjoy browsing high-end secondhand shops and markets, looking for treasured pieces in need of a second life. I recently round a vintage (1980) Gucci shoulder bag at a local Sunday market in pristine condition. Anything I haven’t worn in a year I donate to one of my local charity shops supporting migrant families.

I wash my wool clothing items once a week, on a cool short cycle and never use a tumble dryer. I also do decorative mending and experimenting with patches and embroidery techniques to extend lifespans. YouTube offers many editorials and the options are endless. I also enjoy altering old favorites, like cutting a dress to make a skirt, or cropping long pants to a new, fashionable length.

I wear wool clothing when exercising, as most items made from natural fibers can be aired to remove body odor and do not need laundering after every workout session. I keep my clothes and shoes on open racks and rails (thank you IKEA!), with every piece visible. This helps me keep tight control of how many pieces I own and makes getting dressed as exciting as shopping for a new outfit in a store.

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

I enjoy storytelling and subscribe to newsletters by carefully selected brands, to stay on top of their philosophy in sourcing. Their true essence must shine through every piece of information they publish, or I will not consider purchasing. I enjoy supporting smaller enterprises with transparent supply chains.

Recently I found an attractive pair of jeans a large chain store, with impressive sustainable fiber credentials published on the swing ticket. But when I picked up the garment, I could smell the chemical residue from the bleach they used to create the light blue finish. As I was a denim designer myself, I realized that a cheap (and very harmful) chemical treatment was used to create that look and put it down immediately.

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

I enjoy cleaning with natural ingredients, such as white vinegar with added bicarb and a few drops of essential oils. I have not owned a car for 5.5 years so my daily commute is by bicycle or public transport, but select smart events might warrant a taxi or Uber ride!

I’m careful to only purchase my beauty products from suppliers with very high eco-credentials and natural oils from verified sustainable sources are my go-to products for skin, hair, shoes, wooden furniture and anything else needing moisture.

Seven years ago, I stopped dying my hair and using nail polish when a good friend was diagnosed with cancer. Her ordeal made me realize that we are systematically poisoning our bodies and our planet and that many suppliers of cosmetics have no scruples in selling their customers harmful ingredients.

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

High margins are enabled by the prolific trade in cheap fossil fuel-based textiles, resulting in endless marketing budgets for fast-fashion brands. Many consumers are desperate to make good purchasing decisions and leave the planet in a better state for the next generation, but simply do not understand the complicated textile supply chain well enough to see through greenwashing.

My current bug is ‘made from recycled polyester,’ as the fiber does not exist at commercial scale yet. Most of these garments are made from recycled PET bottles; a very valuable source of plastic which should be recycled into plastic, to keep the material in a closed loop system. Using it for textiles, however, removes it from the circular economy and dumps into a linear economy, creating millions of little pieces of plastic (microfibre pollution) with every wash.

These low-quality (inexpensive) garments cannot be recycled and often end up in landfill, leaking chemicals and lingering to infinity. I do not know how the marketing managers live with themselves, selling such an atrocious lie to innocent, conscientious consumers.

IWTO publishes blog posts, including sustainability facts based on science here, and also supports retail sustainability managers with reliable data sets and peer reviewed scientific facts on The Wool Notes.

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

Consumers understand that our planet is in crisis mode. They expect political leaders to come up with a plan and legislators to publish laws to support the plan and implement changes to protect our dwindling natural resources. COP26 showcased the extent of global concern, especially among the youth, but also the extent of Big Oil.

Wool industry members stand ready to champion the solutions Mother Nature created millions of years ago, when she perfected a fiber fit for man and beast, while supporting Earth’s ultimate circular economy in the process. Clothing and textile production figures doubled during the past 20 years and our planet is clearly showing the result of this business model.

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

IWTO Working Groups continue to engage scientists in finding solutions to make our industry more sustainable, from the best farming practices fit for the environment, to industry practices aimed at reducing waste and protecting valuable natural resources.

We are engaging policy makers at the European level in the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) process, where role players are currently debating the criteria for future textile rating tools. We offer our support in this process and urge all role-players to Make The Label Count and come up with a reliable textile measuring tool, fit for purpose and based on reputable scientific findings. We need to guard against fast-fashion role players derailing the good intent of this process for financial gain.

What is the apparel industry’s biggest missed opportunity related to securing meaningful change?

We are not currently basing future strategies on reliable data and scientific evidence. Global LCA studies are not aligned in the boundaries they include, resulting in skewed results and defunct data. Textile business leaders need to grow a conscience and behave responsibly. A consumer using a garment for 15 years, automatically reduce the footprint of that garment by more than 70 percent.

By turning quality fiber into good quality yarns, spinning or weaving it using the latest technology, optimizing energy costs while managing chemicals and effluent efficiently, and putting decent manufacturing techniques into place using skilled and well-paid labor, we will produce textiles consumers can enjoy for more than one generation and keep rubbish from piling up in landfills. If we cannot be compelled to do that on our own, legislation will have to do it for us.

We need to offer consumers the truth in sustainability messages. If we do not include renewability, biodegradability and microplastic pollution in our textile rating schemes, we are fooling ourselves and ultimately deceiving the public. It is called greenwashing, and no marketing budget will be able to fix the devastation left in its wake.