Seamless Growth Ahead for NRDC's Clean by Design

As a scientist who has committed her life to advancing public health and protecting the environment, the last place I ever thought I'd appear is in Vanity Fair's September Style issue. But somehow, someway, here we are.

The good folks at Vanity Fair graciously decided to feature me in the issue because of NRDC's Clean By Design program, an initiative I started six years ago to address the environmental impacts of the fashion industry abroad by greening its supply chain.

It turns out that the shirt on your back comes at a tragically high cost to the environment. One-fifth of the world's industrial water pollution and 10 percent of all climate pollution is generated by the textile sector, which uses 20,000 chemicals -- many of them carcinogenic--to make your clothes. As America and Europe have outsourced its textile manufacturing to developing countries, they've outsourced their pollution too. And the factories are increasingly centered in countries -- China, Bangladesh Vietnam, etc. -- where governments cannot keep pace with the industry's massive pollution footprint.

But change is afoot. Customers are demanding more from the food that they eat, the clothes that they wear, and the goods that they bring into their homes. Companies are feeling pressured to take more responsibility to reduce their environmental footprint around the world. And Clean By Design is leading the sustainable transformation of a trillion-dollar-a-year apparel industry.

The setting that renown photographer Annie Leibovitz selected for the shoot - 2ReWear, a clothing recycling plant, keeps thousands of tons of used clothing out of landfills each year by collecting and sorting it for resale into domestic and foreign markets, or recycling it into secondary products for the building and automotive industry. Many thanks to its CEO Eric Stubin for his hospitality and his work to lower the environmental footprint of this industry! Many thanks also to Stella McCartney, one of Clean by Design's original advisors and one of our most active participating companies, for the completely wonderful piece that accompanies the photo.

The Vanity Fair feature is a cherry on top of a banner year for Clean By Design that saw the positive results made by cleaning up more than 30 textile mills dyeing fabric for major apparel brands and retailers in the U.S. By adopting simple efficiency measures, these mills dramatically reduced their resource use and pollution, cutting up to 36 percent of water use and 22 percent of energy use per mill and a total of at least 400 tons of chemicals - while saving on average nearly $500,000 each.

We're now gearing up for a new batch of Chinese textile mills to enter Clean by Design. On September 15th, we'll bring another 50+ mills into the program. With the help of NRDC's Beijing team, we'll be working this time in the Suzhou metropolitan area in Jiangsu Province, China, not too far from Shanghai - home of more than 600 textile mills. These new recruits will serve as excellent role models for others, especially once they've gained the return on investments typical of the program to-date.

Clean by Design also has a new and important partner in Suzhou: the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC). SAC represents more than 30% of global apparel manufacture, with members that range from discount retailers like Target and Kohl's to sports brands like Nike and Adidas to high end fashion designers from Kering. What's more, SAC's membership is committed to benchmarking the environmental performance of factories in their supply chains with a common measurement tool called the Higg; more than 3,000 factories and 300 mills are currently scored in the SAC database. Clean by Design dovetails nicely into the Higg (which is evolving to become more quantitative this year), and factories undertaking improvements in our program will see their Higg scores rise. Looking ahead, as SAC members begin to incorporate environmental performance as a sourcing criteria and incorporate Higg scores into their supplier score cards, the demand for programs like Clean by Design should rise rapidly in the apparel sector.