Sense and Sustainability
By Christopher Ruvo
Part of a growing sustainability movement across industries, apparel suppliers are spearheading socially-conscious initiatives to protect people and the planet.
After the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Coca-Cola had a 30,000-pound problem. The poundage consisted of plastic Coke bottles discarded at the games, and the drink-maker wanted to do something useful with them. Enter environmentally-friendly supplier Boardroom Eco Apparel (asi/40705). Working with Coke through The Hudson’s Bay Co. (which owns a chain of Canadian department stores), Eco converted much of the plastic waste into 100% recycled polyester fiber, which was then knitted into 7,000 beanies.
In November last year, Coke gave the beanies to underprivileged children in Vancouver. Donating time and overseeing the conversion process for Coke, Eco Apparel used the method of “Solution Dying,” which adds colored pigment directly into the recycled yarns to reduce the environmental impact. “It was a goodwill gesture and we were happy to participate,” says Eco CEO Mark Trotzuk. “What really excites me is that a big company like Coke is serious about sustainability and giving back, as are we.”
Compelled by a multitude of reasons – dwindling natural resources, consumer expectation, increasing regulation, desire for innovation, better supply management and a mandate to be more responsible stewards of people and the planet – a growing number of apparel suppliers like Eco are focusing on sustainability. The term has become a catch-all that includes not only best practices that lessen environmental impact, but also a host of societal matters like treating workers fairly and becoming involved with charities.
Industry suppliers aren’t alone in this movement. A 2010 study from KPMG Industries, an international network of firms offering audit, tax and advisory services, determined that 62% of companies surveyed say they have sustainability strategies, compared with a little more than half in 2008. Dozens of major retail brands banded together in early 2011 to create the Sustainable Apparel Coalition to establish a comprehensive eco index for the industry.
Quite simply, wearable suppliers are working hard to make the world a better place for business, customers, employees and communities. Says Trotzuk: “We’re moving toward a time when sustainability and real responsibility are what you’re going to need if you want people to buy your products.”
Saving Through Eco Stewardship
Not long ago, Garry Bell, vice president of global marketing at Gildan Activewear SRL, was a panelist in a forum discussing environmental practices in large-scale manufacturing operations. When an audience member asked what factor will most drive environmental innovation in the years ahead, Bell said consumer demand for lower-priced goods will compel manufacturers to make more using less water, chemicals, energy and raw materials. “Although it may sound counterintuitive, the almighty dollar is going to drive the ongoing wave of environmental innovation,” says Bell.
He should know. Gildan’s extensive sustainability initiatives, which have helped the Montreal-headquartered supplier win recognitions like being named to Maclean’s magazine’s list of Canada’s 50 Best Corporate Citizens, includes a strict “Environmental Code of Practices” that has spurred cost-saving manufacturing innovations that positively impact the environment. For example, using gravity, microorganisms and sunlight, Gildan’s Biotop system virtually eliminates dyes and chemicals from wastewater produced within the manufacturer’s primary textile-making factories in Honduras and the Dominican Republic.
Flowing from Gildan’s facilities by the force of gravity, wastewater goes through a series of membranes that extract heavy, salty brine, while lightly-salted water moves into a series of lagoons that contain various bacteria. Aided by ultraviolet light, the bacteria breaks down dyes and chemicals. After 30 days, the treated water is released into rivers that local farmers draw on to irrigate crops. During the process, no fossil fuels or incremental energy is consumed, and the lagoons are home to species of birds, alligators and reptiles.
To ensure compliance with local environmental laws, Gildan’s systems have been reviewed by green groups and are monitored by the Dominican and Honduran governments. “These systems are not only a great environmental solution, but also lower our overall costs,” says Bell, indicating that Gildan saves money by spending less on energy. “That is where the synergies between low prices and environmental sustainability truly meet.”
At fabric textile facilities abroad, both Gildan and HanesBrands (asi/59528) operate biomass steam-generation systems that reduce energy consumption and reliance on conventional fuel. Implemented in 2009, the system at HanesBrands’ Dos Rios plant in the Dominican Republic, which is the company’s largest energy-consuming facility, burns rice husks, coconut shells, sawdust and wood chips – all of which are available locally as agricultural waste – to heat water to produce nearly all of the steam required for the plant’s bleaching, dyeing and finishing operations. The biomass system saves more than 8,000 gallons of oil per day, dramatically reducing CO2 emissions from steam-generation. Next up, HanesBrands plans to enhance the system by using steam to co-generate electricity for the facility.
In a related energy-saving effort, HanesBrands, which was named an Energy Star Partner of the Year by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2010, has signed a contract to purchase all of its electricity from a national hydroelectric generation company in the Dominican. “Combined with our biomass system, this initiative will reduce the carbon footprint of the Dos Rios facility by 95%, quite possibly the lowest carbon footprint of any industrial fabric textiles facility in the world,” says Matt Waterman, Hanes senior marketing manager.
Eco-friendly electric generation is at the top of Vapor Apparel’s (asi/93396) list of green initiatives. The Charleston, SC-based supplier strategically partnered with a manufacturing facility in Columbia because nearly 70% of that country’s power is generated by hydroelectric or geothermal means. “The facility is powered by a green grid,” says Christopher Bernat, Vapor’s chief revenue officer, noting the plant is outfitted with a recycling system that allows water to be used three times before being treated and released. “As power and water get more expensive, this will lead to long-term efficiencies,” he adds.
Stateside, Vapor’s headquarters carries LEED certification, a recognition from the U.S. Green Building Council that the supplier’s facility meets the highest eco standards. Beyond hosting waterless bathrooms and other sustainable features, Vapor’s headquarters are built in a way that maximizes natural light, minimizing electricity use. Says Bernat: “Seventy percent of the time we don’t have to turn the lights on because we’re lit by ambient light.”
Having raised cotton on a sprawling expanse of Texas farmland about 50 miles south of Lubbock for 35 years, Darlene and Jerry Vogler know well the anxious uncertainties of farm life: the weather, like last year’s drought, that devastates crops; the promises of supposed buyers that never come to fruition. While the vicissitudes of farming are an inescapable reality, the Voglers’ uncertainty has lessened over the last several years thanks to Anvil Knitwear (asi/36350).
As part of Double It! – an Anvil campaign to double the acreage of U.S. organic cotton – the New York City-based supplier guarantees it will buy organic cotton cultivated by the Voglers and other farmers in the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative. By assuring farmers of a market, Anvil aims to encourage growers to plant more organic cotton. “We’ll buy it and put it in our 100% organic cotton youth shirts,” says Rita Luppino, sustainability associate at Anvil.
The supplier’s pledge is a welcome boon to the Voglers, the majority of whose 1,400 or so acres runs thick with organic cotton. “Anvil is not a customer; it’s a partner,” says Darlene Vogler, noting other vendors have made similar promises but never delivered. “The commitment the company has made to us is unbelievable.”
Beyond wanting to be well-positioned to meet what it believes is growing demand for organic cotton apparel, Anvil initiated Double-It! out of a sense of responsibility to the planet and the farmers who supply the company with cotton. Whereas organic farming uses biological controls such as crop rotation to preserve soil and avoid pests, conventional farming introduces a host of chemicals that can cause health problems and pollute land and water. (The company is also a major buyer of transitional cotton, the crop produced in the three years it takes a regular farm to become organic.)
Anvil complements the Double-It! campaign with www.trackmyt.com, a website that allows the life cycle of its organic youth T-shirts to be tracked from seed to finished product. Each tee features a number on the hem that, when entered into the online tracker, reveals the shirt’s history. “We want to use our business to push change,” says Luppino.
SanMar (asi/84863) executives were itching to improve corporate social responsibility efforts. They found the perfect partner to help when, on a 2009 visit to Bangkok, they met Auret van Heerden, president of the Fair Labor Association (FLA), a nonprofit dedicated to ending sweatshop conditions worldwide. “It was clear that we could learn quickly and ultimately have a greater impact by working with knowledgeable people like Auret,” says SanMar Purchasing Manager Renton Leversedge.
As a “participating company” with the FLA, Preston, WA-based SanMar must meet 10 worker-protecting requirements at all factories that produce its private-label brands. These include establishing internal systems to monitor and ensure humane workplace conditions, providing factory workers with confidential channels to report problems directly to SanMar and, crucially, submitting to rigorous, unannounced inspections by the FLA to ensure standards are being met. The FLA publicizes results of the factory audits.
SanMar’s partnership with the FLA is one example of how leading suppliers are trying to source more responsibly. Others abound, including the growing number of suppliers who are working to source from factories that are certified by Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP), a nonprofit dedicated to the certification of lawful, humane and ethical manufacturing. As of press time, all of San Clemente, CA-based Independent Trading Co.’s factories in China were WRAP-certified; all of Gildan’s sewing operations are WRAP-approved.
Suppliers serious about sustainability don’t just rely on the FLA or WRAP to make sure factories operate ethically; they also spearhead inspections and are quick to spur remediation if issues arise. Patagonia (asi/76442), for example, annually inspects factories to see if they’re adhering to the Ventura, CA-based apparel-maker’s rigorous code of conduct, which in some areas is more stringent than WRAP standards. When factories require assistance to upgrade equitable practices, Patagonia enrolls them in special training.
Similarly, Alternative Apparel (asi/34850) hires a third-party firm familiar with the laws and cultures of countries where it manufacturers to inspect factories to ensure they are meeting the Norcross, GA-based supplier’s vendor guidelines, which include provisions on environmental protection and worker safety. “If an error is detected,” says Marketing Director Gina Kwok, “we take the proper steps to deal with it immediately.”
Closing the Loop
At Boardroom Eco Apparel, responsibility for clothing the company produces extends beyond the sale. Last year, the Vancouver-based supplier launched a “closed-loop” program for recycling garments into new clothing or other useful products. Taking discarded apparel from a variety of fabrics, Eco converts it into things like insulation and rags. The supplier also redistributes used apparel. (To assuage corporate concerns about brand security, a company’s logoed apparel is not redistributed.)
Still, the core of Eco’s program centers on getting 100% polyester garments back from corporate partners once they’re done with them and then transforming the clothing into 100% RPET fabric. The process involves grinding, melting and extruding the garments and polyester scraps into pellet form before converting the material into fiber that can be turned into apparel and accessories. Beyond reducing the environmental impact of making new apparel, Eco figures it can save money in the long run by reusing materials rather than buying new.
In a similar effort, Patagonia has collected 45 tons of clothing and recycled it into 34 tons of new clothes since 2005. The recycling push is part of an initiative called Common Threads, which also encourages consumers to buy only what they need from the clothier. If Patagonia garments are still in good shape but the wearer no longer wants them, Patagonia encourages consumers to donate the threads to charity or sell them through the supplier’s eBay site or website. End-users also send Patagonia clothes back to the supplier for mending; the darning is sometimes free. As owner Yvon Chouinard says in a company mission statement, “Every decision we make must include its impact on the environment.”
Clearly, apparel suppliers have taken that directive to heart.