The question is as old as the topic of sustainable and transparent production in fashion itself: which party in the whole supply chain is the one who needs to take action, which one can make all the change? Is it the consumers, is it the retailers, the brands, the producers including the mills and manufacturers-or the politicians?
A recent sustainability conference in London hosted by Drapers was all about the matter again. At the forefront of the discussion was speaker Mostafiz Uddin, founder of Bangladeshi denim fabrics trade show Denim Expo and CEO of denim garment manufacturer Denim Expert Limited.
“The Bangladeshi ready-made garment industry has undergone massive change since the Rana Plaza tragedy–and now it is time for brands to do their part to improve the industry. If you look at Bangladesh, we have more than 4,000 garment factories. Each and every one of them has been audited. These factories have nothing to fear now and are comfortable with transparency. I hear that brands are demanding transparency but if there really was a demand, the industry would already be fully transparent. So what are we waiting for?"
So is it now on the brands and retailers, of course especially the ones that so far disclose their supply chains and keep sourcing transparent, to act? Or dooes the consumer behavior need to change first? Who has to take the action when it comes to responsible production? And how shall it be done?
We asked several players in the fashion business to tell us their view:
Considering a long-term change, the whole supply chain needs to work together with complete transparency and a single urgent sense of purpose. Everyone has power to change the business. Machinery suppliers change the business by building more energy efficient and less resource-driven machines. Fiber and yarn suppliers can enable fabric producers to build a circular eco system by recycling. Garment manufacturers choose to use less water, more lasers and organic chemistry, and finally, the consumers set the trend by embracing sustainable messaging in their buying choices.
All parties are responsible, but the governments have a big role: they should raise public awareness and enact laws in this direction. For instance, they might decrease the VAT amount if a garment is GRS-certified. Everybody, from customers to farmers, has a role for responsible production: customers should choose more sustainable products; brands should appreciate sustainable-minded R&D and support this industry’s direction; production companies should be responsible and transparent, and communicate their ecological footprint. Also cotton farmers should prefer more sustainable and responsible cotton and focus on organic or BCI cotton.
It’s the responsibility of the whole value chain. Manufacturers aren’t only obligated to create sustainable fabrics and find smart materials. It doesn’t start with brands saying that they want to make a sustainable collection. It has to start with the industry demanding sustainability. We all should overhaul the way we produce, design and consume things. The fashion industry is swiftly becoming more transparent. Many brands have set their goals on 100% sustainable materials for the near future. We mills have to be more creative on responsible innovation. We need smart materials, smart ways of recycling and less harmful methods to create new materials. This will bring our industry to the next level of sustainability. Also consumers should find what brands are doing to improve, demand better clothes and inform themselves more–for instance by reading information on clothes’ hangtags.
Responsibility is the value that the fashion industry has to live up to if we want this sector thrive without further damaging the people and the planet. Everybody has to start acting responsibly–brands, mills and garment makers. Trade shows, magazines, schools and organizations have to educate consumers and give them a quality-compass to orientate in this oversaturated market. This process is extremely slow because to educate someone you have to educate yourself first. It means ‘going back to school’, gather all necessary information and carry out your job responsibly. At Candiani we geared up for this years ago offering our clients dedicated denim courses and our yearly Open Mill Day for everyone willing to ‘go back to school’ and get up to date.
Responsibility has to involve everyone. In this era it’s not possible to recognize only a single responsible entity. Responsibility should be rather global and involve the whole production chain. The power in changing the business lays in networking, joining forces and collaborating. And, of course, it’s a process that never stops.
We all share the responsibility to raise ethical consumption and production standards. If there’s end-consumer demand, supply usually follows. But customers need information and inspiration to make great buying decisions. Press, media and influencers also have a duty. Consumers must never stop asking tough questions, voicing their concerns to brands and retailers, who in turn should present responsibly made products. They need to push manufacturers to innovate, but brands and retailers must inspire and inform consumers about what’s important and possible. Manufacturers and mills have the direct power to change their ways, but we all have to give them a reason to do so from a financial standpoint. Otherwise, the less ethically concerned factories will take the bigger chunk of the market. Political incentives are also important – particularly since the end-consumers appoint politicians.
Denim mills have to be more responsible. Too many mill owners are not transparent enough, or don’t understand what transparency is. I spent time in one of the biggest vertical mills in Asia, which happens to have a LEED certification. I was upset to witness underage children working in one of its units. Since the certification system is points-based, you can run a terrible mill that uses kids, but if you’ve installed the best water-recycling plant, you’ll still get a high rating. Certifications don’t cover the entire process. And it’s sad that fashion buyers and brands rely on these certifications. A mill owner told me they wait until customers or brands ask for sustainable options. Many mill owners don't see what they’re doing to the environment. They have to change and learn about the impact of their production, then start employing sustainable fiber options. Then it’s down to buyers and designers–if the price is right, they will jump on board.
Responsible production is about ourselves, our suppliers and our suppliers’ suppliers. Responsible production is not only about production. We worked at our plant and considered plant layout, construction materials, equipment and machinery–we did everything with a responsible mind. In 2016, Envoy Textiles Plant was certificated with LEED Platinum Certificate. We are a fully integrated mill: materials can be controlled and tracked. Ever since our production started, we have been purchasing cotton and chemicals only from reliable and traceable resources. Now 70% of our cotton is BCI certified; we employ a dyeing process that saves 70% water and 50% chemicals; ozone technology is replacing old methods and saves up to 90% water.
I started three years ago offering recycled feather paddings and recycled nylon materials for Blauer USA’s jackets, when not many focused on such aspects yet. Still much is left to anyone’s own initiative and sensitivity in selling or buying eco-friendly products. Still anyone is free to decide if, for instance, it is necessary to test materials before using them. Unfortunately, too much is still left to one’s intelligence and culture. I think we all need more proper law system and political action that obliges the industry to stick to more specific responsible standards.
It’s a task of the fabric mill taking action in responsible production. It has to control wastewaters, chemical wastage to minimum level and reduce carbon emission. Using more and more recycled products is a must! And also the laundry needs to work in the same direction. Some brands are already involved in the environmental protection, while the pressure should come with the customer. The brand needs to put more effort on advertisement and promotion of this aspect.
It’s the responsibility of the brands. Our brand was born sustainable. For us it has always been obvious and common sense to choose sustainable materials and ethical production methods. Consumer attitudes have changed since we founded it five years ago. Today, a lot of consumers contact us to ask about our production methods as they’ve decided to consume more responsibly. Also, store buyers have changed their thinking – three years ago, they considered sustainability a trend. Today quite a few stores demand details about fabrics and production methods before meeting us to make sure they’re dealing with an environmentally conscious brand. Everybody should move towards a greener and more transparent industry–manufacturers, mills and brands. When brands tell consumers they care about the production, consumers will slowly alter their shopping habits. Clothing also has to have a long lifespan so it can be resold.
The retailer has to convey the correct message about a sustainable product. In the past I sold a special quality of cashmere made by recycling production remains and my customers felt that as a poor and lower quality product, but it was the opposite. Consumers need to be informed and taught about the higher quality and excellence of sustainable products. Retailers have to explain how different and superior are such products, but also companies need to provide information and marketing tools that can help capturing consumers’ attention and trust. I am selling eco-friendly Swedish cosmetics by Bjork & Berries very well. Thanks to their luxury packaging and information on properties, ingredients and production methods consumers understand the difference from other glossier though probably less environmentally friendly cosmetics.
Everyone has to take action. Certainly, the more consumers demand sustainability in products, the more companies will seek ways to offer them. But to make the change happen more quickly, brands and retailers also have to ask the same to manufacturers and mills. And the bigger the company asking, the more likely manufacturers will change. Large companies like Patagonia and Eileen Fisher are asking this. Hopefully more big companies will follow. In the meantime, we all keep asking for sustainable practices when it comes to our products and raw materials. Starting small is still starting.
It’s up to us setting new standards and be an active example in order to start a better future. Everyone needs to take action. As denim manufacturers move in this direction, something that we would recommend is to obtain EPDs (Environmental Product Declarations) for their products. By implementing the EPDs production, the industry would positively influence producers, customers and consumers. Though, this is an ongoing effort and we should never stand still. Responsibility has become a priority for all parties involved. Generations Y and Z especially are particularly committed to climate change since it affects their daily lives and future. They are ready to walk away from brands that don’t demonstrate a good corporate citizenship, which also entails ensuring that workers get paid a living wage.
The responsibility is on everybody, from raw material suppliers to consumers and recycling. It should affect every single player’s choice: producers creating proper infrastructure, investing on human resources and keeping a sustainable business approach; brands considering the value chain as a partner, paying the correct value for the products, choosing suppliers upon objective parameters, and involving skilled people to investigate on real production, distribution and ethic situation of companies. Today the driver is still the profit and it’s difficult to expect that billions of people push or pay for a change–especially in a low/medium level segment that is about 70% of our market. We manufacturers have the power and have to produce responsibly and force others to keep an ethic approach in sourcing.
When we first started our sustainability practices using organic cotton in the early 2000s, it was our initiative to take such an action to create a better world. Until recently, it was the supply chain of the textile industry–especially mills–that took action for responsible production. While today, with the increasing environmental awareness of the end consumer, brands and retailers are also pushing us to improve and innovate towards a better future.
I know that the consumer starts the revolution by asking: ‘What ingredients are my clothes made from and how are they made?’ If all consumers asked that also brands would behave differently. Brands won't respond until consumers will ask garment manufacturers and mills to meet their customers’ expectations around sustainable and ethical textile production. Brands that are not hampered by traditional wholesale distribution models like Everlane, Reformation and Pact have the power to change the business. I started Pact apparel from my view as a customer that what I buy impacts to my body, my community and my planet. And if brands that don't cost more and do the right thing, I will always choose them.
The whole supply chain has to take action for responsible production. We are both a supplier and a customer and transparency requires connecting the dots for a product to become a responsible outcome. Transparency also needs to be a part of the regulations. Blockchain will enable value redefinition where it would be easy to trace and track a certain product as well as creating an incentive for consumers. Mills and garment manufacturers have to work with brands and retailers to make responsible innovation available and desirable for consumers. Consumers have the greatest power to change the business, though need to be educated about why a pair of jeans has to cost a certain minimum price. Then they will be empowered to make the change.
It’s a shared responsibility. Brands have to act consciously and create a business model that is resilient, though it needs to be profitable to do good. So it’s ultimately a business decision. Secondly, brands can only act up to a certain level. The rest has to be managed via policies and incentives from governments. For example, in the UK there are discussions about tax breaks for products that contain more than 50% recycled PET and higher tax on virgin PET. It’s an example of how governments can speed up the process, incentivizing brands to act more responsibly. Consumer pressure is focused on brands in the first place, then retailers–not so much on manufacturers. The consumer pressure is on the brand, which is expected to act responsibly. However, responsible brands are then putting the same pressure on manufacturers. And many manufacturers are acting fast, doing a good job and making an effort to adapt to this new work-process paradigm.
Both brands and manufacturers have to take action to do responsible production. There must be upgraded standards to be followed worldwide. Right now, instead, there are many different methods to reach the same target which make the process very sophisticated. Brand and manufacturer definitely have the power to change the business. But all the brands and manufacturers must follow the same standards for transparency as we have only one world to live in.
The responsibility lies in the hands of each individual. As consumers, we can all do our part to support companies that practice sustainable business and transparency. As responsible companies, we must take into account the impact of the business practice as a whole. Responsibility begins with the owners of the brands and their manufacturing partners. The problem is that this costly process must be done as a whole community and not by single individuals and companies. The truly sustainable process, materials used, path to the consumer and overall carbon footprint are complicated issues to orchestrate in harmony. Each step requires real science and testing to ensure the life cycle of a product is not harmful to the environment.