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Despite how ubiquitous the term “sustainability” has become, the definition remains vague and open to individual interpretation. As consumers are seeking out lower impact products, this lack of standardization or clarity can lead to confusion.

“In today’s world, sustainability means so many different things to brands and consumers,” said Marc Lewkowitz, president and CEO of Supima, the promotional organization for American pima cotton, in a recent chat with Sourcing Journal founder and president Edward Hertzman. “The consumers’ choice to go and find sustainability or what they think means sustainability is still challenging, other than generic claims. It’s hard to identify and it’s almost impossible for a consumer to know exactly what sustainability looks like in a product.”

To make sustainability messaging clearer, brands should share not only what they are doing, but the activities in their supply chain that lead to more positive results. But to do this accurately, they need better visibility and proof of what is happening upstream past Tier 1 and 2—particularly around raw materials.

With regulations coming down the pipeline—such as the New York Fashion Act—transparency and supply chain knowledge have gone from nice to haves to need to haves. “Unless the brands are proactive and managing that, they are going to be falling behind, which is going to impact their business potentially far greater than anything else that they’ll be doing at this point,” Lewkowitz said.

Meeting the growing need for authentication, Supima has entered partnerships with verification services Oritain and TextileGenesis. Oritain provides forensic testing to prove that cotton is what it claims to be. And TextileGenesis’ blockchain platform establishes a centralized hub for data to track materials through the supply chain.  

Just one of these tools alone is less powerful than combining physical and digital traceability, Lewkowitz said. “There’s a big difference between traceability and knowing exactly and being able to verify the authenticity of a product,” he said. “Having those two harmonized and connected is the only way to provide the responsibility framework for true traceability, transparency and authenticity.”

As budgets strain under the weight of inflation and other pressures, companies need to continue to prioritize sustainability—focusing more on impact than cost. The industry must accept that sustainability requires investment and cannot be cost-neutral. It might require more funds, but it will also add value to products.

“If we can focus a little bit more on the positive outcomes and get a little bit way away from the cost-squeezing mechanisms that always become core and center, we can refocus on things that are much more meaningful and impactful,” Lewkowitz said.

Watch the video to hear more about Supima’s sustainability and transparency initiatives. And attend our Fall Summit for further discussions about inflation, environmental impact and more. Click here to buy tickets.