Whether it’s circularity, reducing microfibers polluting the world’s oceans or using more materials with less environmental impact, sustainability is front and center in the apparel sector, and brands that hadn’t been on board are joining the party. Because the industry—and the consumer—now demands it.
That much was clear at the Textile Exchange Sustainability Conference in Washington, D.C. last month.
“At the core, this is about a change in vision,” Andrew Winston, author of “The Big Pivot,” said during a keynote at the conference.
And that change in vision is manifesting in seven major trends.
1. Tapping into Sustainable Development Goals
There’s been constant talk about how to get the global apparel sector in line with certain efforts, and though that may still be implausible in many cases, the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are at least getting more companies on the same page with sustainability.
The SDGs, which represent a sort of common vocabulary for sustainability, were the focus for this year’s Textile Exchange conference, and the goals are starting to serve as the guideline for more and more brands as they broach their less impactful paths.
“Sustainability has sort of lost its meaning in many, many ways and the SDGs provide 17 topics to define what sustainability means for the world and for the industry,” Textile Exchange ambassador Caterina Conti said.
Of the 17 sustainability goals, five seem to be ringing most relevant among brands and retailers: responsible consumption and production; climate action; decent work and economic growth; gender equality; and clean water and sanitation.
And just as brands are tackling these issues, so too are the countries where they source their goods, including places like China, India, Bangladesh and El Salvador, among others.
“You’re already seeing in China and India some mills are getting closed for environmental and other issues,” Conti said, adding that the SDGs are allowing for actors within the apparel space to take initiative on key issues.
The SDGs are the one global roadmap for sustainability, and the hope is that as more brands adopt the goals into their own operations, a recognizable transformation in the apparel industry will actually start to take shape.
“We’re all moving towards the same goal and that’s really the point of the sustainable development goals, and it does provide a framework to benchmark ourselves against other companies and other industries,” Conti said.
2. An uptick in Preferred Materials
Slowly but surely, brands are starting to build better raw materials into plans for their products.
In its 2017 Preferred Fiber & Materials Market Report, Textile Exchange found sustainable material use well up over last year.
“It is a combination of interventions that is transforming the industry,” Textile Exchange managing director La Rhea Pepper said. “Company strategies are going beyond concept into full implementation, business models are evolving to support, and technologies are coming online to disrupt current modes of production.”
Organic and other preferred cotton (like Better Cotton, Fair Trade, recycled) use has increased 47 percent over last year, recycled polyester grew 58 percent, demand for lyocell is up 128 percent, and companies are using 54 percent more preferred down (certified to the Responsible Down Standard or the Traceable Down Standard).
For recycled polyester use, Nike, The North Face and Decathlon are leading the charge when it comes to volume. For preferred cotton, it’s H&M, Ikea and C&A.
3. Circularity, circularity, circularity
There’s been nary a trade show or talk or seminar that hasn’t touched on the circular economy and the sweeping move toward it.
“Companies are beginning to mobilize and gear up for circularity,” according to the Preferred Fiber report, which also noted that 24 percent of companies said they’ve already developed a circular textiles strategy, and 57 percent said they had one underway.
Innovators in the space, like Italy-based Orange Fibers, is making a silk-like fiber out of orange peels—700,000 tons of which would have ended up in landfills in Sicily.
Others, like Evrnu, are turning post consumer cotton garment waste into cellulosic fibers that look and behave much like natural or synthetic fibers depending on the functions added, and Vegea has turned grape skins into a fabric akin to leather and has the backing of the H&M Foundation to help bring it to scale.
4. Climate actions
Among all of the world’s concerns, climate change is chief among them for many.
Recognizing status quo when it comes to the apparel industry’s impact on the environment—and climate change—companies have taken to setting emissions targets in their sustainability plans.
Climate change may have been the so-called “elephant in the boardroom” 15 years back but now, according to Textile Exchange, more than 200 companies have set carbon reduction targets.
Global luxury group Kering is one among those that have set targets. The company has plans to reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2020, as one step in reducing its overall impact.
“At Kering, we are implementing our own validated Science Based Targets because contributing to combatting climate change and respecting planetary boundaries in the way we do business is a priority for us,” Marie-Claire Daveau, Kering chief sustainability officer and head of international institutional affairs, said in the Textile Exchange report.
5. Technology for sustainability
Technology is driving change across the apparel industry, and in sustainability, it’s helping ease company’s efforts.
For one DNA technology is expected to be the biggest thing in supply chain and fiber transparency and traceability, and Applied DNA Sciences is leading the effort. The company develops DNA-based molecular tags that get embedded into raw materials and can verify that they are organic cotton, for example.
Beyond DNA, there’s technology to aid in the sustainable production process, companies like perPETual Global Technologies, have developed a breakthrough process to reverse-engineer consumer waste from PET bottles into high quality sustainable polyester. With gr3n, it’s using microwaves in the depolymerization process for recycling PET bottles that’s going to help close the loop on polyester
6. Water stewardship
The world’s water is in more of a crisis than many may have realized, and the apparel industry won’t be able to sustain being the water guzzler it’s always been.
As Mina Guli, water steward and founder of ThirstForWater.org, said during a talk at the Textile Exchange conference, it takes as much as 14,763 liters of water just to make one cotton suit.
That and the fact that the World Economic Forum has ranked the water crisis as the next decade’s biggest concern, has led to more companies figuring out how to go waterless—or at least drastically reduce water use—in their production. Evrnu, for one, says its regeneration technology will use minimal water, helping to preserve the textile supply chain.
The problem for many brands in becoming more sustainable has been the costs associated, but Yann Risz, managing director of sustainability consultancy Aligned Incentives, says it shouldn’t be a question of sustainability or price.
“It’s not a balancing act,” Risz said. “The business is a lever to scale the first one.”
7. Investors taking heed
Even investors are beginning to realize that sustainability is not only key to scale but to long-term business viability—and they are starting to put dollars behind it.
According to Bloomberg analysts, investors are looking for insight gleaned from corporate social responsibility reports and factoring in things like how companies are addressing climate change, material inputs and regulator pressure when considering business value.
“Investors think it helps them determine long-term risk and a company’s dedication to long-term value,” Lauren Cope, ESG analyst at Bloomberg, said at Textile Exchange. “[Sustainability] creates value and doesn’t imply higher risk and lower returns. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.”