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Why a Preferred Materials Strategy is Vital for Brands Today

There’s always talk about sustainability and preferred materials, and though many brands are starting to understand their need to use these methods and materials, many still don’t quite understand what a preferred fiber is.

To put it simply, according to Jeff Wilson, Textile Exchange director of business value strategy and development, who spoke at a Texworld USA panel Tuesday moderated by Sourcing Journal founder and publisher Edward Hertzman, it’s a material that’s at least a little better than the conventional version.

“What that means to us is fibers and materials that have beneficial environmental and social attributes to them compared to their conventional counterparts,” Wilson said. On the environmental side, for example, mechanically recycled polyester is preferred to virgin polyester because there’s at least an element of reuse.

For Robert Bergmann, founder of nonprofit Responsibility in Fashion, calling fibers just sustainable doesn’t factor in the social issue, but calling them responsible does as it indicates that the fiber—beyond perhaps being sustainable—also comes out of a process that’s more socially responsible.

Either way, the apparel industry isn’t unified in its sustainability and preferred fiber messaging.

“The biggest problem is disorientation,” Andreas Dorner, Lenzing’s commercial director for Europe and Americas textiles, said. “Every day there’s a new certification coming up.”

So where are brands to start in the face of all this disorientation? With a preferred materials strategy, according to the panelists.

Brands should look at the materials they currently use for their products and assess options to replace those materials with a version that’s more responsible. The next step would be to look at the processing portion of production and determine whether there are ways to be more responsible there too, like using alternatives to harmful chemicals, for example.

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As Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) membership engagement manager Daren Abney explained, one of the other early steps for brands to take should be to question their reasoning behind adopting a more preferred materials strategy.

“Customers are decision makers with their wallets,” Abney said. “If you’re a brand that’s solely driven by the wallet of customers, are you doing it so you can sell a specific line or are you looking at a more holistic approach to sustainability?”

Outlining four steps to creating an approach that’s more holistic, Bergmann said a preferred materials strategy should look at: moving away from pesticide grown cotton wherever possible, examining levels of chromium in leather tanning and working to correct that, and cutting down on air transport—which can emit as much as 44 times more carbon than sea transport.

And as Andreas added, it’s also about using less water, fewer chemicals and cleaner soil, and a fiber should be able to contribute to all of that.

“I think the most successful brands in the industry aren’t the ones that are focused on creating a green T-shirt line, that’s sort of 10 years ago,” Abney said, adding that it’s the ones focusing on sustainability as providing a business value that have succeeded the most in this area.

What’s more, brands winning at sustainability aren’t waiting for the customer to act in order for them to do the same.

Brands have been holding out hope that consumers will pay up for more responsible product and even surveying consumers to find out how much they care about responsible manufacturing and how many more dollars they’d be willing to spend to get it. But, presenting consumers with a product that’s made using unsustainable materials and that might be made on the backs of slave labor, and then asking them how much more they’d be willing to pay for a product that doesn’t do that, sounds almost silly when you hear it aloud.

“We just need to stop asking consumers do they care and how much more are they willing to pay for an eco product,” Wilson said. “Stop giving consumers a false choice. Just give them a better product.”

Bergmann added, “It’s the industry’s obligation to find new materials and processes that cost the same so that the decision doesn’t have to be made, it just exists in the market.”

And it’s going to take more brands—namely the biggest ones—committing to using more preferred fibers. When they do, it will drive the market and help the costs for preferred materials start coming without the premiums they currently do.

It’s like the LED bulb, Wilson explained. Five years ago, a 60-watt LED bulb cost $25 and today, it’s around $2.

“In less than five years, the industry has driven that cost down by more than 80 percent,” Wilson said. “That’s what we need to do in the textile industry.”

For companies wondering whether there’s a capacity for sustainability that the sector will soon reach, there’s really a long way left to go before that happens.

Currently, organic cotton, for example, is less than one percent of the market and there’s much more room to grow. For BCI, 500,000 metric tons of better cotton were taken up by brands and retailers last year, and more than 200 million is available in the marketplace, according to Abney.

What’s next in the preferred fiber realm could be product the sector hasn’t even seen yet—perhaps there will be a new material that experts will be able to engineer that will simply be more responsible.

As Wilson posed, “Do we have a whole new set of fibers and materials ahead of us that can replace some of our existing ones in 10 years?”

Companies like Bolt Threads are already creating spider silk without using actual spiders, and advancements in biomimicry could give way to more developments that mimic nature in some way.

“We have significant improvement right ahead of us in the next five years to really advance preferred materials if we don’t go chasing shiny objects,” Wilson said. “The real challenge is how do we take all of that tons and tons and tons of post-consumer textile waste and either mechanically or chemically loop it back in? I think we have to figure that out.”