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How Sustainability Drives the Future of Turkish Apparel Production

Turkey is the sixth-largest supplier of apparel worldwide, with the country producing more than $17 billion worth of exports in 2020, according to the Istanbul Apparel Exporters’ Association (IHKIB). But the success of the industry down the road isn’t going to come down to sheer volume, the association believes. In fact, as more apparel is produced, manufacturers must keep adapting their technological and production infrastructure in a more sustainable way if they want to truly flourish.

IHKIB, which now has more than 17,000 exporter members, feels the industry is in a prime position to evolve based on its sustainability-driven mindset. Although sustainability has been a recent buzzword for many apparel players over the past decade, sustainability investments have been a part of the Turkish apparel sector’s agenda for 20 years.

As the third-leading supplier to the European Union, with an 11 percent market share of apparel distributed across its 27 countries, the Turkish apparel industry continues to serve the interests of buyers from E.U. nations. Social rights and climate issues have become even more paramount in recent years—leading to the formation of The European Green Deal, a set of policy initiatives aiming to make Europe climate neutral in 2050.

Turkish manufacturers are keeping a close eye on the evolving global agenda and preparing action plans according to the occurring changes. The current and future plans of the Turkish apparel industry are fully meeting and further orienting the sustainability concerns of the global apparel value chain, according to Mustafa Gültepe, chairman of IHKIB.

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While European-based fast-fashion retailers like H&M and Zara were initially focused on two main imperatives—price and speed—the sustainability, circularity and durability issues that have entered the global apparel agenda have pushed these companies to understand the value add of a more sustainably produced garment.

This gives factories in Turkey a major edge ahead of global competition due to its established ties in Europe and its level of certification, which extends from ISO to Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) to OEKO-TEX, according to Cem Altan, board member of IHKIB.

Knowing the continued collaboration between many E.U. buyers and Turkish manufacturers, brands in both the U.S. and across the globe could follow suit to develop more sustainable garments for their consumers.

Water treatment, renewable energy become top priorities

When it comes to producing apparel more sustainably, Turkish factories are focusing on various areas where they can improve the process, such as through water treatment, energy reduction and the de-emphasis of dyes.

“Ecologically, manufacturers are trying to minimize harm to the environment by using water treatment, collecting rainwater, wastewater retreatment and decreasing water consumption,” said Ismail Kolunsag, board member of IHKIB.

Turkish factories can offer all three of those water processes at once.

“This is relatively new and it has transformed the industry into a new shape,” Kolunsag said. “For instance, with digitization, denim producers are now using laser technology in the designing processes. Thanks to that, the water consumption in denim production has decreased.”

Beyond water, materials and energy reduction, recycling and the use of recycled materials are essential to the Turkish apparel manufacturing process.

The roles of compliance and digitization cannot be overlooked

IHKIB board member Mehmet Kaya emphasized the need for a “partner chain” within the Turkish apparel industry instead of a traditional supply chain, meaning that manufacturers in the partner chain are encouraged to take full responsibility for customer satisfaction with the product.

This partner chain mentality is even more important for driving sustainability, in that all stakeholders are aware of their role in delivering responsibly produced apparel to the end consumer. This extends to worker safety and labor compliance, particularly in factories, which are unfortunately neglected in many areas of the world.

“For more than 20 years, Turkish factories have not used any direct dyestuff within their apparel production process. Major companies are investing in renewable energy, using solar panels in their factories or windmills to decrease the level of energy used in factories.” according to Kaya.

Leftover materials are separated from each other in the pre-production process before they are sent to relevant registered recycling units and re-converted into yarn and fabric. The pre-production process in Turkey is very well organized and, more importantly, traceable, Kaya emphasized.

And with some countries establishing high duties for used garments as they are transported across borders, collaboration between the manufacturer and the brand is crucial in effectively handling post-consumer recycling processes to mitigate high costs and potential waste.

While digitization is another common talking point when discussing the apparel supply chain, it must be interrelated with sustainability to thrive.

“A couple of years ago, sustainability was a good thing to have, but today it is a ‘must’ and not something optional. It is not possible to trace and control sustainability without digitization,” Kaya added.

Learn more about the Istanbul Apparel Exporters’ Association (IHKIB), its members and its recent projects here.