As Strategic Director of Redress Raleigh, I have currently been focusing on professional development and striving to learn as much as I can about the future of the fashion and textiles industry. Because of this goal I recently attended the Evolving Textiles Conference at NC State University. It was a great opportunity to hear about an entirely different aspect of the fashion industry than what I am exposed to regularly.
Letitia Webster, Global Director of Corporate Sustainability for VF Corporation, discussed how as a company of 30 different brands, they are focusing on encouraging what each brand is doing well in sustainability. Examples included the Reef Redemption Collection, which uses less toxic materials as well as giving back to artisans around the world and Timberland’s Earthkeepers line that not only sources and creates environmentally responsible materials but also lists a Product Map of Impact so you can see exactly what your choice means. Webster explained that although it is complex to integrate sustainability into a business that has so many different brands, educating each one on key issues such as water or energy usage helps focus each brand’s initiatives.
Webster also emphasized that sustainability has to start from the beginning, with systems such as bluesign that rates chemicals used for production and the HIGG index being sent to suppliers as a kind of educational outreach – people need to understand sustainability first before companies start demanding it. She was very blunt about how consumers say they will pay more for eco-friendly goods but when actually purchasing items research has shown they do not follow through with this statement. For now, she and VF Corporation are focusing on how they can use their scale to focus on what they can control, reduce their bad, increase their good, and continually improve.
In addition to the corporate aspects of sustainability, various groups are focusing on how to convey to businesses what is “bad” versus “good” – the educational outreach previously mentioned - through things such as a Restricted Substances List or sustainability indexes such as HIGG. Ben Mead and Ashley Gill from the Textile Exchange expanded on the wealth of information they have available for companies looking to do self-assessments and earn certifications proving their sustainable initiatives. They stressed how transparency and integrity are increasingly more important to consumers these days and 3rd party certification helps prove that companies “say what we do and do what we say”. Any company looking to learn more about sustainability in the industry will find plenty of info on the Textile Exchange website.
Another interesting presentation was related to companies
continuously innovating in the field of dyeing and processing. Two
presentations at the event focused on new technologies dealing with the
detrimental effects of dyeing textiles. One, from Huntsman,
detailed a new reactive dye called Avitera SE that uses much less water and
takes less time than typical dyes. It also requires no capital expenditure to
switch. They are also working on waterless dyeing technologies but the main
catch with those is that they can only be used on polyester.
In addition to this new offering, Novozymes has created an enzymatically produced textile process. Enzymes are catalytic proteins that speed up chemical reactions. They typically replace toxic chemicals and use 25% less water than is normally used. This technology also enables the bleaching and biopolishing processes to be combined, improving product quality. A recent collaboration with Marks and Spencer for the “Stay New” line proved that consumers appreciated this increase in quality and the product is in high demand.
Certain parts of the conference reminded me of my time with the US Green Building Council. During that time period (basically from 2005 – 2009) the idea of green building went from something few people talked about and no one understood to something lots of people talked about and a few people understood. The textiles industry often reminds me of this – we have a long way to go but at least we’re talking about it now. It is encouraging to be a leader in this conversation but sometimes it is a struggle to stay positive because we have such a long way to go.
Walking away from the event I was left with one main thought: When are we as consumers going to wake up? I appreciate that enormous companies like VF Corp are finally thinking about sustainability but the way they are thinking about it is in terms of scale – how to meet the ever-impossible demands of fast fashion by making things cheap enough that consumers will still buy them. This is not sustainable in the long-term and until we as humans accept that, corporations cannot make much of a difference. They cannot keep churning out items made from limited resources for less and less money. We need to take responsibility for our choices and make better ones.
We at Redress Raleigh are here to help with that. We understand how complex it is to buy responsibly-made textiles and we are here to show you the latest great designers who create responsibly and to provide resources to help you make more informed choices. Join the movement, join our e-newsletter to learn more about what we do, or feel free to contact us any time with your questions or insights.