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Sustainability is Under the Microscope and Few are Prepared

The reality is, apparel is a dirty business that consumes more than its share of natural resources. Or at least it has been.

And while that’s starting to change, most fashion firms are evolving very slowly.

By now, the statistics are well established: One cotton T-shirt requires 2,700 liters of water, according to the World Wildlife Fund. An estimated 20 percent of dyes used in the apparel industry remain in water, according to the World Bank. And only 1 percent of the textiles used for clothing gets recycled, says the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

These are the facts driving some to push water conservation initiatives, fund circular innovations and create consumer-facing promotions. But too little of this effort has made a big enough impact.

Dr. Kannan Muthu, head of sustainability for textile quality management company SgT, said it’s been a decade since he earned a doctorate in textile sustainability and in that time, he’s seen some movement—but not much.

“If I were to rate the level of sustainability the industry has achieved, I’d say only awareness,” he said. “With my experience of having visited hundreds of factories in Asia and Europe, I still feel that there is a long way to go to achieve any level of sustainability.”

Muthu said too many factories haven’t even reached the first rung of the Global Social Compliance Programme scale used by the Consumer Goods Forum to harmonize efforts around environmental conditions in the global supply chain. Level 1 would represent basic compliance, awareness and understanding.

But the time will soon come when all factories will have to make major improvements to stay in business. Muthu said you only have to look at the manufacturing facilities that have been shut down by Chinese and Indian officials to see that governments are getting serious about sustainability.

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And they’re not alone. Consumers, too, are pressuring apparel companies to act now through their activism and how they’re choosing to spend their money.

While some brands and retailers are leading the way by publishing their supply chain standards and partners, Muthu said transparency is lagging. “There are umpteen numbers of hide and seek stories with many brands even now,” he said. “You can see a lot of false claims, which are unchallenged by anyone.”

That’s why the most forward thinking brands and retailers are taking steps today to ensure all stakeholders are aware, compliant and committed to constant improvement.

SgT provides these companies with a range of solutions designed to assess and verify the environmental claims of both production facilities and the goods they produce.

Muthu said the most popular service the company provides is its Higg Index verification (Muthu, SAC69, has been approved as verifier and trainer by the Sustainability Apparel Coalition), which validates the self-assessment score for factories using Higg FEM 3.0 and provides a plan for performance improvement.

Additionally, the company provides similar verifications for manufacturing processes claiming to be low impact. Other services include conducting life cycle assessments to determine products’ environmental impact and carbon, water and energy footprints.

SgT, which is led by a team of textile experts each with more than 15 years of industry experience, can banish greenwashing by helping brands secure their image with proper backed-up environmental claims. It can also lend credence to substantive assertions by quantifying the benefits of one product over another.

Ultimately, Muthu said sustainability is moving out of the sidelines to become a driving force in the apparel industry and companies that fail to embrace this new reality may not be around long to see it.

“The regulations will be tougher in the coming days, where these companies and suppliers will have to strive very hard to be in the business,” he said.

Learn more about SgT’s team of textile inspectors, lab technicians, textile engineers, auditors and trainers at