Trying on Sustainability

The companies that make and sell most of the world’s clothing insist they want to operate without endangering workers, polluting waterways, or using toxic chemicals. But clean practices can be a hard sell.

The chances are quite good that, as you read these words, you’re wearing an item of clothing made by the largest apparel company in America. The chances are even better that you have no clue as to that company’s name. But even if you’ve never heard of the 115-year-old VF Corporation, you’re almost certainly aware of many of the brands under its corporate umbrella: Timberland, Lee, The North Face, Wrangler, JanSport, Vans, and Nautica, among more than two dozen others. In 2013, VF, which is based in Greensboro, North Carolina, produced 450 million units of garments and leather goods. Annual revenue hovers around $11 billion.

Though VF may be among the largest makers of apparel, it’s by no means the only multinational corporate parent with a brood of highly successful brands. PVH, which began its life as a single pushcart from which hand-sewn shirts were sold to Pennsylvania coal miners, has morphed into a powerhouse whose Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Van Heusen, IZOD, and other labels brought in more than $6 billion in revenue during 2013. Then there’s Inditex, the Spanish company whose eight brands include the rapidly expanding retailer Zara; Inditex sold nearly $21 billion worth of merchandise during 2013 in more than 6,300 stores spread across six continents.

The globalization of the $1.7 trillion–a–year apparel industry has conferred many benefits on the countries where clothes are “sourced”—that is, where they actually get dyed, cut, and sewn together. It has boosted these nations’ economies and strengthened their diplomatic and political relationships with trading partners.

Dyeing and finishing textiles involves some 20,000 chemicals—many of which are carcinogenic, endocrine-disrupting, or harmful to fetal development.

But stretching supply chains across oceans and continents has also diffused corporate oversight and accountability. In recent years, much attention has been paid to workers’ rights, child labor, and on-site safety, especially in the wake of tragedies like the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh. Less attention, however, has been focused on environmental costs: the dirty downside of making clothes in incredibly high volumes, and at staggeringly high speeds, while keeping production costs as low as possible.

Dyeing and finishing textiles, for example, involves some 20,000 chemicals—many of which are carcinogenic, endocrine-disrupting, or harmful to fetal development—and accounts for nearly one-fifth of all industrial water pollution worldwide. Cotton fields, which yield the most widely used textile on the planet, account for nearly 25 percent of insecticide use and more than 10 percent of pesticide use. Wastewater, untreated or only partially treated, flows from textile mills into rivers, lakes, and streams, where it raises pH levels and temperatures, and deposits salts, metals, and other harmful chemicals into the entire water column, from surface to bottom sediments. The apparel industry is the third-largest polluter of water in China—the largest single producer of clothes worn throughout the world—as well as one of the largest generators of greenhouse gases on earth.

Given the importance of clothing in our daily lives, it’s tempting to imagine the industry one day following in the footsteps of the sustainable-food movement that has emerged over the past few decades. Initially a response to consumer worries over pesticides and other chemicals, this movement then broadened to include larger concerns about resource conservation and the harmful practices of Big Agriculture. But as satisfying as it may be to imagine a “slow fashion” trend that would have people not only buying clothes less frequently but also more thoughtfully, the parallels go only so far.

In truth, while we seem to care a great deal about the food we put into our mouths, we typically exhibit far less concern about the environmental and social costs of the garments we put on our bodies. The vast majority of shoppers tend not to worry about, or even to ask about, the many materials, chemicals, and processes that go into their bathing suits or coats. For now, sustainable clothing is a niche: generally more expensive and relatively hard to find. The industry’s “arugula moment,” when the artisanal and exclusive crosses over to and is accepted by a much broader swath of the market, has yet to arrive.

Simultaneously, the industry’s globalized business model—in which huge multinationals rely on byzantine supply chains to produce billions of garments for thousands of brands—has the effect of dwarfing any direct action that a concerned consumer might want to take. Even so, within that model there are occasionally moments when creativity, technology, and increased awareness align to produce a hopeful sign of this industry’s incredible, if still unrealized, potential for change. One of those signs might even be hanging, right now, on the coat hook by your front door.

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VF apparel is currently sold through 47,000 retailers, from low-end discount emporiums to upscale department stores, in more than 150 countries; the company owns and operates more than 1,000 stores of its own, and many of its brands sell directly to shoppers over the Internet. In order to manage the ceaseless production flow, the company owns or partners with nearly 2,000 facilities, most of which operate in Latin America or Asia. The list of locations, as it happens, doubles as a list of the world’s most rapidly developing nations: Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Thailand, and Vietnam.

One unintended consequence of VF’s phenomenal growth, of course, is its equally phenomenal environmental footprint. And so, of course, the company employs a senior director of corporate sustainability in the form of Letitia Webster, who, on a sunny autumn morning at VF’s headquarters in Greensboro, avers that the massive scope of the company’s global operations means that any move it makes toward sustainability—no matter how seemingly small—can have a significant impact. As she puts it: “Incremental change, at scale, is transformational.”

Webster describes VF's a-ha! moment. In the late 1990s, she recalls, travelers clad in the company's weather-resistant clothing were returning from trips to chilly regions with firsthand observations of climate change. “Our North Face team was seeing glaciers melt,” she says. “Consumers and employees were asking questions” about the environmental impacts of the clothing they wore or produced.

Clothing can be a technical nutrient, one that cycles back into new clothing. Or it can be a biological nutrient, cycling back to the earth after its intended use period.

After much internal discussion, VF initiated a sustainability division in 2001, focusing at first on two areas: shrinking the carbon footprint of its offices and retail stores, and reducing its use of hazardous dye chemicals. In the decade that followed, the company developed and implemented its CHEM-IQ program, which aims to screen all the chemical formulations found in VF’s various product lines and help brands eliminate the very worst of them from the production process. These days, Webster says, “we’re avoiding putting harmful chemicals into the beginning of the pipeline”—a more efficient, and far more intelligent, approach than trying to manage their impact at the end of the process. Of the 1,500 formulations screened under CHEM-IQ so far, VF has phased out 28 of them—representing, to date, a total of 74 metric tons of hazardous chemicals.

Is that a lot? Not really—it’s about 2 percent of the total amount of chemicals VF uses in the manufacture of its clothing. Still, it’s a start.

Next, Webster slides over a pink jacket for inspection. “We sell a lot of these,” she says.

Indeed, the jacket known as the Denali has been a top seller for VF’s North Face brand since 1988. The high-performance fleece jacket, which comes in infant, toddler, children’s, and adult sizes in more than a dozen color combinations, used to be made from conventional polyester, which is derived from crude oil. Since 2009, however, the Denali has been manufactured out of fabrics certified by Bluesign, a Swiss technology network dedicated to promoting environmental responsibility within the textile industry; currently, Bluesign certification represents the industry’s gold standard for sustainability. Among these fabrics is a remarkable material known as Repreve, a polyester made from recycled, postconsumer plastic bottles. According to The North Face, making Denalis from old plastic keeps more than 30 million of these bottles a year from going to landfill; furthermore, for every yard of Repreve that’s used in place of conventional virgin polyester, 40 fewer pounds of greenhouse gas emissions enter the earth’s atmosphere.

Repreve is manufactured by Unifi, a company in Yadkinville, North Carolina—less than an hour’s drive from Greensboro. Unifi’s enormous plant is stuffed with conveyors, pelletizers, ducts, pipes, chutes, tanks, hoppers, bins, dryers, and endless banks of highly sophisticated, German-designed machinery. The process of making Repreve starts not with plastic bottles in their recognizable form but with cornflake-size shards of clean polyethylene terephthalate (PET)—the material from which the bottles are made, and which Unifi buys in bulk from regional recyclers. Hot-air machines dry and shape the flakes into peppercorn-size pellets, which are then run through heated pipes that melt them into a gluey liquid. A plant manager guides a visitor past beeping forklifts and plumes of steam to a series of panels, behind which molten plastic is forced through 68 pinprick-size holes called spinnerets, forming filaments—one-fifth the diameter of a human hair—that are then bundled into yarn.

Unifi has been making Repreve from postconsumer PET since 2010. More recently, the company has begun to make good use of cutting-room scraps: bits of post-industrial polyester, including leftover Repreve, are rescued from factory floors by manufacturers and returned to Yadkinville for reuse. The amount of Repreve that typically remains from the manufacture of 10 Denali jackets can be turned into four more.

At first glance, the story of how the Denali gets made would seem to be cause for optimism. Wow! Through a combination of good intentions, ingenuity, and new technology, this giant company is creating clothing that keeps plastic bottles out of our oceans and landfills, keeps greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere —and keeps us warm to boot! A best-selling jacket made largely out of one of the most common forms of non-biodegradable litter on the planet—a jacket whose leftover bits can even be made into more best-selling jackets—would certainly appear as a sign that we’re inching closer to the elusive “closed loop” of production and consumption that authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart envisioned in their book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. And indeed, as Braungart says, “Clothing can be a technical nutrient, one that cycles back into new clothing. Or it can be a biological nutrient, cycling back to the earth after its intended use period.” Depending on the materials, in fact, our old clothes could be turned relatively easily into compost, erosion barriers, building insulation, and many other useful things. With such developments already at hand, could the zero-waste society really be all that far away?

Alas, the real picture isn’t even remotely rosy. In the United States alone, we burn or send to landfills approximately 60 million PET water bottles every single day—21.9 billion a year. As admirable as The North Face’s decision to make its Denali jackets out of Repreve may be, the simple fact is that this has an infinitesimal impact on the amount of PET plastic that’s despoiling our environment. While we marvel at the 70 million pounds of Repreve rolling out of Unifi’s factory each year, it’s hard to ignore a far more impressive figure: the 65 billion pounds of conventional, crude-oil-derived, virgin polyester that’s rolling out of thousands of other factories all over the world at the same time.

And there’s another wrinkle: how we go about disposing of these items once they’ve been so marvelously manufactured. So far, neither VF nor any of its mega-size competitors has been able to come up with an economically viable way to reclaim or recycle the millions of items they introduce into the marketplace, year after highly profitable year. Letitia Webster hints at this when she acknowledges that her company is still trying to figure out precisely “what happens to the jacket afterward.” As long as that part of the equation remains uncertain, the question lingers: How sustainable, in the end, is a jacket that’s destined to be discarded and replaced once it gets torn or outgrown, or when the newest line—featuring all-new colors!—appears the following season?

Sustainable features may be an added value for some customers, but for the most part, they don’t drive purchasing decisions.

If all clothing makers were to devote equal amounts of energy toward the goals of responsible sourcing, responsible manufacturing, and responsible postconsumer recycling—then yes: Perhaps the large-scale, transformational progress of the kind Webster alludes to could take place. But even if VF and all its global competitors suddenly discovered a safe, economical way to make every last item of clothing from plastic bottles (or better yet, old polyester fibers), and even if they followed up by devising a wonderfully effective system for reclaiming old clothes and turning them into other useful items or desirable commodities, a fundamental barrier to sustainability would remain.

Fashion, defined broadly, is synonymous with change—and, ultimately, with rejection. The implied obsolescence of last season’s styles, along with the urgent sense that they must be replaced with this season’s looks, is the engine that drives the industry forward. The one concerted effort that would arguably go the furthest toward reducing apparel’s environmental footprint—a massive campaign that encouraged consumers to buy fewer (and better-made) garments, to eschew trends, to participate in clothing swaps, and to shop more at thrift and vintage stores—is antithetical to the industry’s business model. Clothing manufacturers, you can be sure, aren’t in any particular hurry to spearhead such a crusade.

And for now, at least, most consumers aren’t even asking them to. H&M, the Swedish clothing giant, posts annual revenues that make it the world’s second-largest apparel company, after Inditex. Though H&M has been credited by some with practically inventing the modern concept of cheap, disposable “fast fashion,” lately it has been making an effort to green its supply chain at a number of levels, from phasing out the discharge of hazardous chemicals into waterways near production facilities to significantly ramping up its purchase of sustainably grown cotton.

But according to Henrik Lampa, H&M’s environmental sustainability manager, such efforts aren’t a result of consumer pressure. “People come into the store looking for fashion and price,” he says. Sustainable features may be an added value for some customers, but for the most part, he notes, they don’t drive purchasing decisions.

Linda Greer, the director of the health and environment program at NRDC (which publishes onEarth), has been leading that organization’s efforts to green the textile industry for more than a decade. She senses a similar lack of enthusiasm from retailers. “Brands report that small sustainable collections flop,” she says. This mutual tepidity is reflected in the indifferent manner in which H&M’s line of sustainable clothing and accessories, called Conscious, is promoted on the company’s website and in its stores. You can look through a dozen racks on the floor of an H&M before finding a single shirt that bears the Conscious designation.

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It all adds up to a frustrating question whose answer won’t come easy. If manufacturers aren’t yet making sustainable clothing at a significant scale, if retailers aren’t effectively promoting what little of it does get made, and if consumers aren’t clamoring for it anyway, how on earth can we ever hope to shrink the industry’s woefully large footprint?

A clue may have emerged during a recent shopping trip to Patagonia, arguably the best-known retailer of clothing for outdoorsy people who like to be thought of as being savvy about sustainability. Near the front of one Manhattan store—next to a large, elaborate graphic that provided details about Patagonia’s 100% Traceable Down Initiative, a commitment to procure only down that can be traced to birds that have never been force-fed or live-plucked—we noticed that a middle-aged man and woman who had spent a fair amount of time wandering through the store admiring the goods were now making their exit, purchase-free.

We followed them out the door, eavesdropping on their conversation.

“I think,” the woman said to her companion, “we’d better go home and do an inventory of our closets before we buy any more sweaters.”

This article was made possible by a grant from the Jonathan & Maxine Marshall Fund for Environmental Journalism.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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