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Sustainability Is a Vote Against Short-Term Thinking, Experts Say

One way to make a name for yourself in an industry seemingly defined by the lowest common dominator is to take a stand against short-term thinking and to do the right thing—which many times can be the profitable course of action, too.

Sustainability is the topic apparel stakeholders can’t stop talking about and yet few have emerged as the trailblazers illuminating the path forward. Saitex, a Vietnam-based apparel manufacturer, is content to carry the torch, working toward earning the designation as a certified B Corporation whose core business activities “meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, transparency, and accountability,” per the certification’s website.

Considering that apparel and textile factories might commonly be associated with “sweatshop,” “child labor” and disasters like the devastating Rana Plaza collapse and the notorious Pakistan fire, Saitex stands out from the pack by putting a decade’s worth of time and resources into figuring out how to build sustainability into its operations.

The Bien Hoa, Vietnam-based privately-owned manufacturer cranks out six million articles of clothing annually and has still managed to reduce energy consumption by increasing natural light and working with college kids to build an “old-fashioned” air flow system to replace cooling mechanisms, shutting down its steam dryers to air-dry garments instead. Not only did the company save 5 million kilowatts of power and as much as $35,000 each month, but it was incentivized to “go for the big bang” after enjoying the first taste of success from those “low-hanging fruit,” CEO Sanjeev Bahl said at the Sourcing Journal Summit in New York City last week.

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Then it was time to invest some CapEx into sustainability, he said, and take the long-view of Saitex’s operations and bottom line instead of obsessing over the short term, with a push into renewable energy and water recycling. “It’s taken us seven years to break even but I can tell that ROI is close to 13 percent.”

Conscious of how sustainability can be differentiator, especially as an early adopter in the space, Bahl acknowledged the struggle to efficiently communicate what Saitex was up to and why it mattered. “As soon as we started engaging in this dialogue [about sustainability], what erupted was a brand new methodology to do business,” he explained. “It’s a journey. It leads to continuous improvement, which needs continuous investments.”

Continuing, he said, “But somewhere down the line you break through into a zone called innovation. That innovation is priceless and definitely leads to a high degree of profitability.”

For some, profitability is the back door to the sustainability conversation. Cyclo, a company that turns recycled fabric into usable fibers and yarns, counts many of Europe’s biggest retailers among its clients, from Inditex and Carrefour to H&M, Primark and C&A. Director Mustafain Munir said Cyclo’s first big client, a German discount retailer, compared samples of standard 100 percent cotton with its own 100 percent recycled counterpart. The colors on the recycled material might not be as bright and it’s not quite as soft as what you get with virgin material but in the end all the German firm really cared about was its cheaper price tag—and promptly ordered tens of thousands of pieces.

“Unfortunately, we’re at a stage in the world where sustainability is not a nice to have anymore. It is a necessity,” Munir said. “So if discounters are embracing it, other brands should be too.”

The Cyclo exec also lamented U.S. retailers’ sluggishness in incorporating recycled materials into their supply chains. That mega-retailers like Walmart, TJ Maxx and Ross Stores are not embracing this easy win, he said, is “bloody embarrassing.”

“Europe has completely embraced the recycled thing,” Munir said, describing it as “brass tacks.” “We are behind in the States.”

Because the process of recycling fabric scraps produces shorter fibers, garments created with the second-life material are typically staple basics like hoodies and sweatshirts, Munir noted. Over the years, however, Cyclo’s investments in technical processing improvement has been able to create longer, and thus softer, fibers better suited to “more diverse” categories like French terry.

One of the biggest upsides to working with recycled fabrics, he continued, is they’re already colored (or not). Most of the apparel industry’s environmental harm comes from dyeing fabrics, and there’s no need for that with re-purposed fabric scraps. Plus, yarn-intensive garments like sweaters generate among the greatest benefits from swapping out virgin fibers for recycled ones, enabling cost savings between 20 percent and 50 percent.

If there’s a poster child for the sustainable fashion brand, Mara Hoffman would definitely be part of that conversion. The brand wasn’t founded on ethical, environmental and social responsibility, rather, it pivoted to that way of business with the eponymous founder herself leading the charge. Still, the only way to describe wading into the unfamiliar world of sustainability is “tricky,” Dana Davis, the brand’s vice president of sustainability, product and business strategy, said. Recounting those early days of talking with factories and suppliers about switching to organic and GOTS-certified cotton, Davis said their response was, “do you want the first 100 meters to be organic or the whole thing?”

It’s a strange and startling question, to be sure, but one that illuminated how difficult it can be to ensure that vendors are on the same page as their brand clients. Davis stressed the importance of having boots on the ground, people willing to ask factories the tough questions and get to understand complicated new sets of processes and certifications.

“With a lot of certifications, it takes a lot of time to get that transaction receipt,” Davis said. “If [the factory is] turning that over within one email or within 24 hours, question it, follow that up and don’t just take it at face value.”

The Mara Hoffman executive described the importance of keeping the brand aesthetic at the forefront even as it undertook a sustainability transformation. “We tried to stay true to our voice as a company but also work with suppliers and take them on this journey with us,” Davis explained.

“I firmly believe we’re not leading with sustainability; it’s an added bonus when you purchase with us,” she said.