Fabric Footprint

Group looks to green the garment industry

Bridget Smatlan bends over her sewing machine, gliding the plaid fabric of a simple summer dress though the machine. Her one room workshop is full to the rafters with fabrics, and has a cozy work feeling, with creaky hardwood floors, tall windows and the odd pipe sticking out of the wall.

The 31-year-old local small business owner has designed her own clothing label for the past six years, selling her garments at the City Market and local craft sales.

Many of the fabrics she uses are vintage, found in second-hand stores and plundered from the hordes of granny seamstresses. She  orders basic fabrics from a wholesaler in Vancouver, as well as several different local retail stores.

But even with new fabrics she has very little information on how the material was created, including what chemicals and dyes were used in the manufacturing process.

“None of that is available to us whatsoever,” she says. “That’s how relaxed the industry is right now.”

Sometimes, even the fibre composition is a mystery, and Smatlan tests roughly one in ten fabrics herself in order to provide the information label on her clothes.

This confusion is the reason behind the creation of a new industry group called the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a group of big brands and non-governmnet organizations that are working together to green the garment industry. The group has some big players, including H & M, Wal-Mart, and Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC). One main aim of the group is to create two sustainability indexes, one for the industry and one for customers. Clothing designers for these brands would be able to use the index when choosing fabrics, so that they could gage the product’s environmental and social impact. Eventually, the group hopes to create a consumer index for consumers.

Smatlan welcomes the initiative, and hopes that the ripple effect from these big brands will eventually increase the sustainability of the fabrics she buys.

“That would change everything,” she says. “That’s just like putting the nutrition information on food packaging.” Eventually, the labeling could lead to widespread changes in the industry, she says.

Byzantine Supply Chain

But even for the big brands with lots of clout, these indexes may be a long way off. Peter Waeber is the CEO of Bluesign, a third party textile auditing company based in Zurich, Switzerland, which has worked with MEC. He describes the supply chain for clothing companies as practically Byzantine.

“The supply is very complex, much more complex than people expect,” Waeber says. “Because a lot of chemicals, processes and technology is involved, it makes it not easy for a brand to manage that.”

A lack of data is the biggest problem he sees during his company’s on-site audits of textile suppliers. The companies supplying fabric to brands may have very few details on the kinds of chemicals that go into the dyes they are using, for example. The suppliers may not track electricity consumption, air and water pollution. All these things are key to discovering just what kind of impact the supplier is having on the local environment.

Greenpeace found the same kinds of problems when they investigated textile operations in Guangdong Province, China.

Vivien Yau, a campaigner with the Hong Kong office, says via email that of the companies that did do a chemical audit during their investigation, most factories didn’t know what chemicals were being used in production, or what chemicals they were producing as a result of the manufacturing process. She also noted a problem with cheating and fraud.

“Factories would make a lot of fake records and reports to cheat brands,” she says, “or just switch on the wastewater treatment plants during brands audit.”

Greg Scott, the product integrity director for MEC, understands the complexity of the textile supply chain, and the potential for error.

“We had a lot of things thrown our way saying; ‘This is eco and green’ — but we didn’t know what their reference point was to say why a certain material was more environmentally responsible,” he says. In order to make good environmental decisions, the company needed scientifitic benchmarks.

But MEC also wanted to bring this science-based decision making to the rest of the industry. That’s why the company is also involved in the Outdoor Industry Association. That group also had a central goal of creating a sustainability index, but four years later, they still haven’t succeeded.

“What we found pretty early on is that it’s incredibly complex,” he says. “We needed to standardize the metrics by which we measured our footprint.”

Mainstream Changes

Part of changing the industry involves a big tent approach, and including mainstream brands was an essential element, says Scott.

“It can’t be boutique,” he says. “It can’t be a small group of brands that are considered environmentally responsible yet the rest of the world isn’t thinking that through.”

But Scott isn’t focused on the index itself as the main vehicle of change. He says it really starts with companies asking the right questions of their suppliers.

Waeber of Bluesign says an index on an individual piece of clothing is not only far too hard to accomplish, it really means nothing in terms of environmental sustainability. There are too many factors involved, he says. The size of the T-shirt, the print, the thread, the buttons — all these elements must be considered. A better approach is to consider the overall environmental performance of the company involved, he says.

Of course, it’s hard to talk about the sustainability of an industry that’s based on continual consumption. Yau points out that the disposability of clothing is also a factor in the amount of waste produced by this industry and the difficulty in getting good information. With fashion trends changing so quickly, just in time shipments from suppliers to stores are a regular occurrence. 

“Thousands of new designs come out per week,” she says. “Each design has different raw materials and accessories, so you could imagine the scope of the supply chain. … The cost to manage and audit the whole supply chain is extremely high for buyers and brands.”

She suggests consumers simply buy less, or turn to second-hand clothing.

For her part, Smatlan is greatly encouraged by the efforts of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, and hopes that the rest of the industry will take note and start investigating their supply chains. Eventually, it could trickle down and give her more access to information about the
fabrics she buys.

“It could be the start of something really huge.”


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