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Are Brands Making Progress on Adopting Preferred Materials?

When it’s deliver-or-die, supply chains become the lifeblood of a company. To that end, the fashion industry has embraced technology to navigate today’s hyper-complicated supply chain, with myriad solutions shaping the first, middle and last mile. Call it Sourcing 2.0.

The textile industry won’t sustain itself—nor will brands retain customer loyalty—if conditions don’t improve with regard to the sector’s impact on the earth. And part of the path to improvement will include using better materials.

In its new Preferred Fiber & Materials Benchmark 2016 report, Textile Exchange, highlights how brands in the space are incorporating preferred materials and where there’s room for improvement. A preferred fiber, by TE’s definition, is one that is ecologically and socially progressive, and has more sustainable properties than its conventional counterparts.

“We are seeing the increased momentum in their [brands] transition from a preferred cotton strategy to a broader preferred fiber portfolio approach,” Textile Exchange managing director La Rhea Pepper said. “While the growth for apparel companies remains strong, from the small to the large multi-sector retailers, of note is the growth in home textiles.”

This year, 71 companies, including Inditex, H&M and Fast Retailing, participated in the index, 28 of which opted in for the first time.

A preferred material isn’t just a “nice to have” anymore as Pepper explained, it’s something brands are increasingly using to help combat geopolitical, economic and social justice challenges.

The textile industry is still in the establishing phase for preferred materials

Ranking the companies on a scale of 0 to 100, based on their responses to questions across four sections—about their corporate strategy, supply chain, consumption and consumer engagement—TE found that it’s still early days for preferred fiber materials adoption.

Though it’s improving, the textile sector scored a 49 out of 100 for 2016, meaning that many companies are only just establishing a plan and process for integrating preferred fiber and materials into their business strategies.

Apparel was the highest scoring sub-sector with 59, as companies in this space are doing better at using preferred materials and getting consumers engaged in the conversation. Home textiles followed closely behind with a score of 52, and outdoor apparel with 46.

When it comes to corporate strategy, the industry is in the “developing” phase. Companies are honing in on their sustainability strategies, setting goals and starting to report on their progress.

“The tone, in most cases, is coming from the top,” according to TE. “However, on the whole, fiber and material sustainability is not being integrated into corporate risk reviews, nor is it adequately integrated into staff roles and responsibilities.”

Moving forward, sustainability will have to go further than just the corporate social responsibility manager and permeate all teams in the organization if there’s to be any significant change.

Supply chains ranked 50 on the index as companies still have more to do in terms of managing the supply side of their preferred materials. The opportunity to improve, according to TE, lies in incorporating a chain of custody in the supply chain to aid with transparency.

“Full traceability and supply investment is only occurring amongst a minority, with leaders acting collectively within specific initiatives such as the Organic Cotton Accelerator, the Chetna Coalition (aggregating demand), CanopyStyle (for forest protection) or through matched funding programs such as BCI’s Growth & Innovation Fund,” TE said.

Looking at actual use of preferred materials, perhaps the most important ranking of all, the sector scored just 38 out of 100.

“Pulling PFMs [preferred fiber materials] through supply networks and replacing conventional with preferred fiber or materials holds the greatest opportunity for shifting the sector along the PFM performance continuum,” TE said.

Consumer engagement is still where brands are having the hardest time. This section scored just 35 and TE said the majority of brands has no set agenda for starting and continuing this conversation with consumers. It’s the brands whose entire business models are based on sustainable collections that are leading the way here.

“Many struggle to understand the business benefits, let alone calculate the return on investment,” TE said in the report. “However, there is enormous potential for companies to ‘close the investment cycle’ and more strategically engage their customers in this important agenda.”

Preferred materials uptake by the numbers

Preferred cotton is clearly leading the way when it comes to company uptake—73 percent have set targets for uptake of preferred cotton, and collectively, the companies have used 336,487 megatons of the fiber.

Thirty-nine percent of companies have targets outlines for recycled polyester, and the 71 companies have used 22,622 megatons of the stuff. Fifty-seven percent of companies had targets set for certified down, and the aggregated consumption across them comes to 879 megatons. For man-made cellulosics, 39 percent of companies have targets set and they’ve consumed a combined 7,909 megatons of it.

So far, the use of preferred cotton has resulted in 555,068 hectares of land with reduced chemical use, organic cotton uptake has led to 344.693 hectares of organic certified land with no artificial or toxic chemicals, 1.37 billion plastic bottles have been diverted from the waste stream for use in recycled polyester, and 49 million ducks and geese have been protected from live-plucking and force-feeding thanks to certified down.

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