The very latest in green fashion isn’t the $20 organic cotton jeans at Kmart or the handloomed hemp/silk blends on the runway at Fashion Week. It’s a tiny sensor immersed in a chemical bath in a Chinese textile mill, feeding information to computerized controls that deliver just the right amount of heat, water and chemicals to treat the tons of fabric that move through it every day.
This mill is one of perhaps a thousand in China that can report on its environmental performance to clients—and these days, clients want to know. Fashion is going green behind the scenes, as companies start to look for sustainability in the very nuts and bolts of their business.
Fashion forward, but manufacturing passé
Fashion may thrive on being au courant, but the typical back-end of its operations is anything but modern. Textile-making is one of the most polluting industries in the world, partly because of the toll that growing cotton and making synthetic fibers takes on the environment, and partly because of outdated manufacturing methods used to dye and finish fabric.
Millions of tons of unused fabric at mills go to waste each year when dyed the wrong color. The Chinese textile industry, which produces about half the clothing Americans buy, creates about 3 billion tons of soot each year. A single mill can use 200 tons of water for each ton of fabric it dyes. And rivers run red—or chartreuse, or teal, depending on what color is in fashion that season—with untreated toxic dyes washing off from mills.
“It’s an old-fashioned industry, and a lot of modern techniques haven’t been adopted yet,” says Linda Greer, an NRDC scientist who works on reducing pollution in China.
Since 2007, Greer and her team have been examining Chinese textile mills in an effort to stem pollution from this industry. They’ve pinpointed ten simple, cost-effective fixes, such as repairing leaky pipes, adding insulation and reusing water, that will make textile mills vastly more efficient. Greer estimates that putting all ten of these practices into place would save an average mill 24 percent in water use, 31 percent in fuel, and 3 percent in electricity costs—all while saving money.
What would it take to convince each of China’s 50,000 textile mills to make these changes? If the bottom line savings aren’t enough, a nudge from a big buyer might help. In the past, only niche brands such as Loomstate, which built its name on sustainability, might monitor a textile factory’s efficiency and environmental performance. Today, however, Loomstate’s way of doing business is making a lot of sense to bigger companies.
“We’re not doing anything that’s so different—we’re in business like anyone else,” explains Loomstate cofounder Scott MacKinlay Hahn. “Fundamentally, everyone’s looking for better pricing from suppliers. What I believe is that by measuring and helping factories be more efficient, they’re in a position to respectfully and honorably reduce costs. Then the pricing isn’t coming from a cost to the community, it’s a true savings.”
Hahn serves as an advisor to NRDC’s Clean by Design initiative, which encourages brands and retailers to consider environmental criteria, not just quality and cost, when they make purchasing decisions. Wal-Mart, GAP, Levi Strauss & Co., Nike, H&M and other big players in the apparel industry have joined the initiative.
If a company such as Wal-Mart, with tens of thousands of suppliers, could develop criteria for environmental performance, and use those criteria to create preferred supplier networks, the entire industry could be lifted into a greener era, as mills with efficient, eco-friendly operations are rewarded with bigger contracts.
“Sourcing directors for the mass market players are starting to have some of the same conversations that we’re having with our suppliers,” says Hahn. “When we first started in 2004, this wasn’t common. Now it’s becoming the price of entry for running a successful business.”
GOTS: The new organic standard to look for
Many of us buy organic cotton clothing without imagining it has been treated with toxic dyes or other chemical finishes, yet this is commonly the case. To ensure that an environmental ethic is continued from the field to fabric treatment and other manufacturing processes, a new tool has been developed to provide guidance to clothing companies. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), seven years in the making, covers every stage of textile manufacturing, from chemical and water use to social criteria. GOTS aims to be the single, worldwide standard for organic textiles, resolving confusion on the part of consumers and manufacturers over a bundle of overlapping organic certifications.
Wal-Mart, Nordstrom, H&M, Banana Republic, Target and Levi’s are just some of the companies that plan to use GOTS certification for their organic products. Consumers can look for the GOTS logo on clothing starting this spring.
GOTS standards are also crossing over to conventional clothing. As companies attempt to get a handle on their suppliers and maintain quality control, the list of environmental criteria is coming in handy. While consumers won’t see a GOTS tag on conventional cotton jeans, some companies are asking suppliers to use only GOTS-certified dyes and chemicals on conventional cotton clothing.
“Besides the environmental benefit,” says Marcus Bruegel, technical director for the International Working Group on GOTS, “this assures them that no unwanted residues will remain on their clothes or textiles.”
Dressed with Excess
Even as the manufacturing process becomes cleaner, the fashion industry still has a problem with excess and encourages consumers to treat clothing as disposable, with little need to be worn more than a few times. Fashion seasons are short, yet growing seasons are long. Manufacturing to specifications on the short notice that has become typical leads to careless mistakes in production as well as hindering eco-smart production scheduling, such as running similar colors on the same day. Further, when the garments fail to sell, millions of tons of useful, high-quality materials—even organic cotton—end up getting dumped in landfills or incinerated.
Most people in the industry chalk this up as the cost of doing business. Not for the founders of Looptworks, a Portland, Oregon, outfit launched in September 2009. Looptworks makes all its clothes using high-quality excess materials destined for the dump. Looptworks designers scour textile mills and warehouses around the world to retrieve brand new fabric, thread, buttons and zippers, checking factory records for strength and color fastness. They design clothes using only the materials they find.
“There are always ‘I wish I had’ moments, when the zipper is 27 instead of 29 inches, or the button isn’t quite right, and I ask the designers to push a little harder,” says co-founder Scott Hamlin. “They’re literally sitting on the floor of these factories sorting through boxes of buttons.”
Recycling permeates Looptworks entire business, from printing business cards and catalogs on reused paper, to shipping items in reusable bags and avoiding purchases of anything new for their business operations. Hamlin does admit, however, to purchasing a new 1-terabyte external hard drive—after much agonizing.
The business plan is laudable, but it isn’t easy. “It’s a logistical nightmare,” says Hamlin. Still, the environmental payoff is huge. An study in the UK estimated that if all of Britain’s 61 million residents (about 20 percent of the U.S. population) were to buy one recycled woolen garment, the nation would save 371 million gallons of water.
“That’s enough fresh water for more than 2 million people for a year,” says Hamlin. “Would we like to touch 20 percent of the American market? Absolutely. But we have to rely on the end customer to practice mindful consumption—to buy the right thing, not just because it’s inexpensive.”
More about Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
This comprehensive fiber certification has provisions to reduce the environmental impact of every stage of a fabric's production, from the harvesting of raw materials to the dyes, bleaches and processing agents used. Managed by Control Union, a global accreditor for a variety of certification programs, GOTS certification comes in two levels: “organic” (or “organic in conversion”) which contain at least 95 percent certified organic fibers (or fibers from fields transitioning to organic). The second level is “Made with X percent organic materials” and a similar organic in conversion label, which must contain 70 to 95 percent certified organic or organic in conversion fibers. The rest can be non-organic fibers, including some synthetic and recycled fibers. GOTS forbids the use of formaldehyde, heavy metals, toxic dyes and chlorine bleach. To see the standard in full, visit global-standard.org.
This article was reprinted with permission from SimpleSteps.org.