Mending our Ways: A Conversation on the Environmental Impacts of the Fashion Industry

On Monday morning, at the gathering of environmentally-minded business leaders known as SXSW Eco, I'll be leading a panel discussion on how to reduce the impacts of the fashion industry on the global environment. The globalization of apparel manufacturing means that many clothes are made in regions where environmental protection is weak. Apparel companies who choose to outsource to these regions, and who benefit from those lower costs, must take on the ethical responsibility of ensuring that their clothing is produced in an environmentally sound way, throughout their supply chain.

NRDC has stepped in to help multinational apparel retailers and brands improve the sustainability of their supply chains, through our Clean By Design program. The program helps suppliers of multinational companies to reduce water, energy, and chemical costs through a set of ten best practices, so that factories can save a lot of money while while saving the environment. When we started Clean by Design, we believed that demonstrating these substantial cost savings would be a strong incentive for the factories to adopt these cleaner practices. However, from a supplier point of view, there are more familiar ways to increase the bottom line (such as by simply increasing production), and many will gravitate to those well-known methods rather than take on the unfamiliar challenge of making environmental improvements. We've seen that these factories need the extra push of their multinational buyers, who need to make environmental performance a clear and critical part of their business relationship with their suppliers.

Consumers can also play a role in pushing for better practices. Customers can choose clothes made from raw materials that are renewable and sustainably sourced (such as organic cotton) but this only tells part of the story, since the manufacturing process is where a lot of the environmental impact occurs. Consumers should educate themselves on the overall approach of their favorite brands toward environmental responsibility. This can include looking for real reporting and transparency about supply chains, and supply chain policies, not just fluffy "Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)" reporting, on their websites. Be skeptical of CSR pronouncements, as detailed with gusto in latest blog by my colleague, Linda Greer. Email/write to companies to express your interest in more consumer-facing information about their environmental efforts. Companies will respond to consumer demand, even beyond the dollars you spend. Your buying choices are some of the most powerful environmental weapons at your disposal - use them well.

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