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Thinking More Sustainably Across the Apparel Supply Chain

Image Credit: Hannah Morgan

Sustainable production standards for clothing continue to rise, with attention to sustainable materials and practices becoming a more integral part of the global apparel industry. In an effort to mitigate its impact on the environment, the sector has been taking important steps toward more sustainable product solutions.

But are we doing enough?

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the apparel industry has one of the largest carbon footprints globally, contributing to considerable air and water pollution and resource waste. Textile mills, the manufacturing facilities where fibers are woven into the final products that consumers see, generate 20 percent of the world’s water pollution alone.

It’s not just the final product that can be harmful to our ecosystem. The entire apparel supply chain, from fiber ingredient production until after it leaves consumers' hands, plays a role in the industry’s environmental impact — and the responsibility to think more sustainably across the supply chain falls on all of us.

The Supply Chain as a Process

From the textile spinners that create yarn, to the mills that weave it into fabric and dye it various colors, to the brands that design the final garments and package it for consumers, and finally, to the consumer that uses and disposes of it, each segment of the supply chain can empower itself to do more to make the entire apparel industry more sustainable.

Spinning & Dyeing: The nature of synthetic textiles produced by spinners and mills can result in microplastics pollution of our water supply from textile washing, which is harmful to both humans and marine life. Additionally, traditional methods in which fabrics are dyed lead to significant energy and water usage. To curtail this pollution and waste, the NRDC developed a Practical Guide for Responsible Sourcing to help spinners and mills follow water, fuel and energy saving best practices. The industry can also look to solutions from organizations addressing plastic and water pollution such as the Oceanic Society or Plastic Pollution Coalition.

Manufacturing: The performance and durability of a particular fabric and its end product play an important role in sustainability. If a product isn’t made to last, it will break down faster and need to be replaced sooner than a well-made, durable piece of clothing. Sustainable, high-performance materials, such as Sorona®, which is partially derived from naturally renewable resources and offers a variety of performance benefits, are available to help apparel manufacturers create more durable products made to last for many years. We ultimately need to keep garments in closets longer and out of landfills.

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Packaging:  Waste from packaging is a significant environmental concern across many industries, and companies such as RePack are challenging the textile industry to be more mindful of packaging by encouraging brands to partner with them. Through a partnership with RePack, brands can offer consumers a reusable package in which to receive their products, with an incentive to return the packaging. According to RePack, using their packaging can help companies reduce their carbon emissions by 80 percent. Some forward-thinking apparel brands have begun to proactively evaluate their packaging and its impact on the environment, identifying sustainable solutions to reduce waste internally or through third-party partnerships and programs.

Use & Disposal: According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 85 percent of post-consumer textile waste ends up in landfill. Yet there are ways to thoughtfully manage unwanted or old clothing, and the onus is on the industry to lead these consumer education efforts. For garments that can still be worn, clothing swaps and consignment shops can extend a product’s life; for garments that can’t, textile recycling centers around the country will accept these items. Brands should look to companies such as Patagonia, Madewell and Royal Robbins that have established programs that offer consumers a way to recycle old garments purchased at their stores.

Joining Forces to Drive Change

Accountability falls on every member of the supply chain. The environmental realities call us to be more sustainable throughout an apparel product’s entire lifecycle. Beyond taking actionable steps individually, we can unite to take action together to ensure the industry is driving long-term sustainability.

Pursue sustainability certifications: Certifications in the apparel industry help companies ensure their products are meeting critical environmental standards, and there are multiple options to explore.  Just a few examples include:

    • The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is the standard for organic fibers
    • OEKO-TEX® is a system for raw, semi-finished, and finished textile products at all processing levels
    • The Bluesign® system ensures that textile products meet very stringent consumer safety requirements
    • The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a BioPreferred® Program that certifies bio-based products

Each of these environmental certification and accreditation programs align companies around set environmental standards, encouraging the improvement of their environmental footprint and providing consumers and partners with more visibility into their eco-efforts.

Collaborate to optimize sustainability: By combining forces, members of the supply chain can leverage each other’s strengths to do business more sustainably. For example, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) brings together manufacturers, brands and retailers to solve sustainability challenges across the supply chain. Among other programs, SAC’s Higg Index helps measure and score a company or product’s sustainability performance. Additionally, the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute works to ensure circularity in supply chains through its Products Program.

Brands can also collaborate one-on-one to fuel eco-innovation and develop more sustainable apparel options for consumers. For example, DuPont™ Sorona® collaborated with Unifi REPREVE® — a high-quality fiber containing recycled materials — to create high-performance, renewably sourced garment insulation. By working together, the apparel supply chain can be inspired and learn from each other to drive meaningful change.

Sustainability for All

Doing business more sustainably requires commitment and action. However, by working together across the supply chain, we can knock down the barriers to integrate sustainability into the foundation of the apparel industry — ultimately producing accessible clothing that gives people the opportunity to make thoughtful and responsible apparel choices that contribute to a more eco-friendly industry.

Renee Henze is the Global Marketing Director for DuPont Biomaterials at DuPont Industrial Biosciences. In her role, she develops the strategic marketing direction for existing and emerging renewably-resourced technologies, such as Sorona® — working across the value chain with textile… [Read more about Renee Henze]

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