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Sustainable Supply Chain Makeovers Start with Baby Steps—Here’s Why

For apparel brands unsure how to take the plunge into sustainability, it might be best to call upon the famous Chinese proverb of “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

At Texworld USA in New York last week, attendees packed a conference room in the Javits Convention Center as several standards and traceability experts shared their insights about the oft-confusing world of sustainability standards, and frequently used the term “baby steps.”

Moderated by Maggie Kervick, director of strategy and integrated partnerships at Glasgow Caledonian New York College, the panel featured Lori Wyman, a representative of Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS); Walter Bridgham, senior business development of home interiors, manager, Lenzing Group; and Lee Tyler director of assurance and operations, Textile Exchange.

The main takeaway from the group: Doing something is always better than doing nothing (as long as that something is on the up and up).

While it may be daunting to know where to start, it was widely agreed that education is the best first step in what should be viewed as a process of continuous improvement.

“There’s no way to jump into it and hit 100 percent [sustainably sourced] of a particular material,” Tyler said, “and the sourcing departments will tell you that because price is the biggest factor. It depends on the size of the brand. If you’re a smaller brand, you’re going to have a more difficult shot at getting those materials with smaller volumes.”

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For these companies, even internal education will go a long way, he said. Those that don’t have designed sustainability staff within their brands should think about adding them; failing that, brands can assign sustainability responsibility across the existing staff. Once brands have educated themselves, they can begin choosing preferred fibers and materials and slowly build from there.

Until government compliance enters and effects significant change, Tyler said, “everybody should start small in their own way across the entire organization…It’s everybody’s responsibility.”

To be sure, understanding the best way to educate, achieve and maintain the various certifications can be perplexing, even for the seasoned sourcing exec. The panel broke down several common misconceptions for the standing-room-only crowd, including the differences between mechanical and chemical recycling; the distinctions between organic process and organic product claims; and how certification bodies differ from accreditation bodies.

Lenzing’s Bridgham advised brands to first tap into their customers to discover their “care level” and then design and source based off that information. Once a brand understands which aspects of sustainability their customers prioritize, they can ask the mills about the raw materials they use, their labor practices, and the certifications and compliance achievements they hold. “Then design into it, and hold them accountable if they’re not delivering what you think they should be delivering,” he said.

While tracing supply chains can be expensive, the group agreed that it can cost more money in the long run should a brand end up doing business with a questionable supplier and lack certifications to validate their claims of sustainability. (The trials and tribulations of Egyptian cotton were mentioned several times during the panel.)

“We’re not proud of it, but GOTS has successfully sued every company we’ve gone after,” Wyman said. “We’ve never lost.”

And while all brands are encouraged to start their journey somewhere, just be sure that somewhere doesn’t come from a place of greenwashing.

“If you’re a beginning designer and you have a small company, you can start by having one line,” Wyman said. “Have one organic line. You don’t have to convert everything at once. Your certifier will help you label [your website] so greenwashing doesn’t occur.”

“You don’t have to do it all at once,” she added, “but you can if you have the money.”