By Sierra Petro
Implementing and supporting sustainable practices was a topic of discussion that stole the show at TexWorld USA, the three-day textile show at the Javits Convention Center, which ended yesterday. Industry professionals from textile companies, non-profit initiatives, and brand reps, proved why sustainability is beneficial to fashion companies in humanitarian and ecological efforts and business in 2019 when questions are asked to those throughout the supply chains.
Out of the 300 manufacturers exhibiting at TexWorld, only 20 were labeled sustainable, and out of those 20, only two met the requirements of the convention’s definition of “eco-friendly.” The “Sustainability Sourcing Guide” outlined in the TexWorld USA directory booklet labeled a manufacturer “eco-friendly” if it used ecological materials produced in environmentally friendly processes with viable social standards. Equally vague descriptions were attributed to the three categories that equaled an “eco-friendly” manufacturer.
Representatives from Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP), a non-profit organization of experts who promote lawful and ethical manufacturing around the world, were at the convention to educate on certification. Getting a certification from WRAP means that for the period of time the certificate is active, the factory is compliant with WRAP’s “12 Principles,” which span from Hours of Work to Environment.
WRAP’s Manager of Education and Business Development, Darlene Ugwa, said, “Most manufacturers should be certified. A lot of factories can get away with not being certified if no-one asks them.” If more and more buyers come to a factory and won’t work with them unless they know they are compliant with certain things, the factory will proactively try to get certification. A factory may also try to get certified if they want to work with a specific brand and the brand only works with factories that are certified from WRAP or another certification program.
TexWorld USA does not confirm certifications with WRAP, but certificate numbers can be searched on WRAP’s website. “If the number doesn’t come up, it’s probably fake or expired,” said Ugwa.
Most textile buyers don’t buy directly at TexWorld, but rather once they have done more research on the manufacturers they met at the convention. One exhibitor, who stood out from the rest, was an online service called SwatchOn. It serves as the middle-man between customers and South Korean textile manufacturers of the local fabric market Dongdaemun, which was one of the leading exporters of textiles in the 1970s until China’s growth.
The site does not provide customers with information on any individual supplier out of the 2,000 it works with. It does have a page on the site dedicated to sustainability and a second to fair trade. Customers can read these pages and will know that some of the social conditions in the factory they may want, are not guaranteed. The company does, however, claim to be minimizing pollution and waste through selling fabric that could be wasted if not sold.
It’s difficult for companies to keep track of everyone in their supply chain and decide what issues to focus on first. United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) is a sustainability initiative that helps companies become more sustainable with defined goals in mind.
According to Claire Kells, Senior Development Manager at UNGC, sustainability rests on 10 universal principles at UNGC based on human rights, labor, the environment, and anti-corruption, and those principles are on the foundation of United Nations values, ethics, and treaties that governments signed.
To remain active in UNGC, companies must report annually on their progress to imbed the 10 principles and four core issue areas into their operations. Every active company in UNGC has a published report on the initiative’s website. “It’s really a way for companies to be transparent and share their progress with stakeholders whether that’s investors, government regulators, partners, employees, or customers. What gets measured, gets managed. By reporting, there’s a positive feedback loop of accountability,” said Kells.
UNGC is also starting to get companies to report on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the world’s governments have agreed to, which include gender equality and affordable and clean energy. These goals, however, are not meant to be tackled by one company alone, but rather in partnerships.
Companies are assisted by UNGC in addressing the SDGs by walking them through five steps of understanding the SDGs, prioritizing them, integrating them into strategy and operations, reporting on them, and then communicating them. One of those steps in the area of prioritization is to do a lifecycle assessment, so the company can understand from raw materials to product end of life where it’s having both positive and negative impact.
More and more brands are making public information about the lifecycle of their products and what their goals are to increase positive impact and decrease negative impact. A few of these brands are Ann Taylor, LOFT, and Justice, who are a part of the Ascena Retail Group, America’s largest specialty retail collective that’s focused exclusively on women and girls.
“A big foundation of our work is centered around the responsible sourcing of our products and our belief is in the understanding that the quality of your product is rooted in the treatment of the worker behind the product,” said Jeannette Ferran Astorga, Global Head of Corporate Responsibility at Ascena Retail Group. Astorga stressed the importance of companies connecting with a core purpose. For Ascena, their business efforts are aligned around women and girls.
Ascena Retail Group launched a five-year commitment to support 100,000 women in its supply chain through health education, which was named the Her Project. It was crucial for not just the brand to be committed to this cause, but all of those throughout their supply chain to be as well. According to Astorga, “The effects of that would not have been as impactful without the collaboration of our supply chain partners, who were influential in making sure our women in factories had access to this training content, had the time to dedicate to this work, and that peer educators were appointed.”
Ascena's work centered around women’s education in factories has not only increased the group's progress in social sustainability, it has contributed positively to their business financially as well. “We’ve measured the impact, we’ve seen the return on investment, and there’s absolutely a business case through supporting women in factories through education,” said Astorga.
The brand that represented those still beginning their journey into sustainability and finding their core purposes was Bonobos, an e-commerce-driven apparel company that sells and designs men’s clothing. Liz Hershfield, Chief Supply Chain Officer at Bonobos, said that the openness of Eileen Fischer and Patagonia, two brands with expertise in sustainability, have been a great help to Bonobos. “It’s not about competition for them. It’s about how we work together as an industry to make a huge impact on the environment,” said Hershfield.
Glasgow Caledonian College in New York has been another tool for Bonobos to learn more about becoming more sustainable. The college is one of seven campuses around the world that is dedicated to a social mission, and their social mission is sustainable apparel. They offer a master’s program in NY, which three Bonobos team members are currently going through. “They’ve been an unbelievable resource for us by helping us build a curriculum of training so our products team could understand all the opportunities out there, helping us focus in on what our strategies are, and working with our executive team to understand why we need to make an investment in sustainability,” said Hershfield.
Asking questions to those throughout the supply chain not only gives companies more information about the impact they are making, it also holds people accountable. TexWorld USA brought textile manufacturers from all over the world together along with chief supply chain officers of clothing companies to sustainability initiative managers to students. In 2019, sustainability is a humanitarian, ecological, and business effort because more and more people are caring to invest in companies that are working on sustainability as they become more knowledgable about the ways to prove the investment.