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Sustainability Progress Could Stagnate if Apparel Brands Don’t Make Bigger Commitments

The supply chain has positioned itself for sustainability but brands are still too far behind in backing the mills and makers that will help them move the needle.

With 800 attendees descending on the Textile Exchange Textile Sustainability Conference in Milan, Italy, Monday, it’s clear brands and retailers are on board with the idea of sustainability, and many are making claims and reaching set targets to green their supply chains. The problem, however, is that the committed may still be too few and their commitments still too small.

Though Geetanjali Woollens has been recycling post-consumer clothing for 40 years, the India based factory only started touting its sustainability efforts in recent years, and still, company director Deepak Goel said, brands aren’t on board in a big enough way.

Geetanjali gathers post-consumer apparel from waste collectors in the U.S., Europe, Australia and Japan, sorts it by fiber composition, then sorts it again by color. Each color gets shredded into fiber, spun into yarn and finds its way into sweaters, accessories, beanies and socks—each produced without dyes and chemicals, and substantially less water.

The product’s appeal for sustainability is obvious, but education on post-consumer apparel and its properties is still lacking, and brands are still using the same yardstick to measure post-consumer yarns against their virgin fiber counterparts in terms of how they perform to certain standards, which has lessened their uptake in some cases.

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“I can make the product but if I am not able to sell it, what is the sense of me continuing to produce?” Goel posed. “Right now, people are still just talking. There’s not been a lot of action on this and I think it will take another year or two.”

Geetanjali recently shipped an order of sweaters to Reformation—which has fast become a leader in sustainable fashion for the conscious millennial consumer—and while it’s a great stride, Reformation takes in just a fraction of the nearly 25,000 kilos of clothing Geetanjali recycles every day.

“We need brands to start moving larger volumes,” Goel said. “If they stay with 100-200 kilos, that’s not going to be sustainable as a factory because we’ve got workers to pay, we’ve got bills to pay.”

At Neo-Concept, a vertical factory headquartered in Hong Kong with factories in China and Cambodia, sustainability is built into the company’s ethos. And if you ask Jackie Tsui, Neo-Concept’s sales and marketing director, brands that haven’t woven sustainability into the fabric of what they do are finding themselves hard-pressed to get consumers to pay up for more eco-friendly product.

The company, known for its fully traceable cashmere, makes circular knits and wovens and prides itself on offering “affordable luxury,” made possible by its verticality.

“From our customer base we can see that more and more retailers as well as consumers are concerned about the environment. They come to us because they know we are doing a lot of sustainability product. They come to us to understand more about this product,” Tsui said. “I can see in the past two years it’s more and more people working on that. Especially the European consumer…the U.S. customers are a little bit behind.”

U.S. brands, like Reformation, that are buying into building a sustainability-based entity, have created a community of caring consumers willing to pay higher prices for greener product.

“Their customer is more on the younger [more conscious] generation…and the customers who go to Reformation are really looking for something special,”  said Tsui, who ships recycled product to the retailer. “Other brands, they are also thinking about sustainability, but because of the price sensitivity, they are also concerned whether their customers understand about sustainability versus the price.”

Taylor Home & Fashions, which has made sustainability its niche, said slowly but surely the mill is starting to get better reception among brands and retailers in Europe, with U.S. brands still trailing behind. But the company’s vice president Gary Frenchman, agreed that the mill’s success will have a lot to do with what comes from the consumer.

“I think that the consumers may care about it, but not enough to zero in on it,” Frenchman said. “And I think that a lot of the retailers are interested in as low a price as possible, and if we can do more in educating the consumers then I think it will pick up, and I think that’s starting to happen now—but it’s a process.”

Really, Frenchman added, it’s about education and communicating the sustainability message.

“And how do you put that on a label?” he said.