Sustainable Textiles Begin With a Sustainable Supply Chain

As the apparel industry is aware, the length of the supply chain (from natural fiber, polymer resin or other material, all the way to finished clothing) is quite long.  Because of the numerous processing steps involved in garment production, often conducted by different suppliers, the major environmental impacts of production usually occur before the Tier 1 (cut and sew) suppliers of brands and retailers. 

Those in the industry working on environmental sustainability, such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) and The Sustainability Consortium (TSC) have concluded that additional focus needs to be placed on lower-tier suppliers to best improve the environmental performance of the textiles and apparel industry.

One important tool employed by members of these organizations is the assessment of supplier environmental performance through indices.  Requesting environmental information from suppliers initiates the engagement process, raises awareness of important issues and signals that customers are concerned about the environmental impact of suppliers.  The use of indices allows facilities to identify the areas for greatest improvement, and the scoring system provides a benchmark of sustainability performance to track progress.

Much of the initial supplier improvement work centers on individual facilities completing self-assessments such as the Facility Module of the Higg Index.  The Higg Index is a larger sustainability assessment tool organized by the SAC. In addition to supplier facilities, it also evaluates brands and apparel products (footwear to come in Version 2). Currently, the results from the Facility Module assessments are used internally by suppliers and with direct customers, but are not yet intended for external communication.

The Facility Module was closely based on the criteria of the Global Social Compliance Program (GSCP), a program previously developed by leading retailers to improve environmental and social responsibility within their shared global supply chains.  It was designed to assess and drive improvement in suppliers to many different industries, and the scope of the program covered 11 different environmental areas of focus. 

The Facility Module tailored the questions and criteria of the GSCP to be more specific to the apparel industry, and it focuses on seven environmental areas, which are a subset of the eleven included in GSCP.  The Facility Module environmental areas address: environmental management systems, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, water use, wastewater, emissions to air, waste management, and pollution prevention/hazardous substances.

Some of the general questions textile suppliers will need to answer as part of the Facility Module include:

Do you measure your usage (or emissions) associated with each of the environmental areas?
Do you regularly set and review improvement targets in these areas?
Can you substantiate improvements in these areas? 

By going through this process, suppliers and their customers can get a snapshot of where they stand on environmental performance.  However, because these questions are being answered by the suppliers themselves, the SAC and others are looking into having the results verified in some way.  Verification serves not only to encourage honest responses and identify false ones, but to ensure the accuracy of information and clarify instances where improper scores are simply a result of a misunderstanding by the supplier about the criteria.

As an organization that has conducted audits based on the GSCP program for textile and other facilities, SGS can confirm that major opportunities for improvement indeed exist within most facilities.  When suppliers take the next step and initiate plans of improvement in areas where gaps were identified in the self assessment, then both environmental improvement and operational cost savings can be significant.  

Indeed, to achieve the highest scores in the Facility Module suppliers need to go beyond minimum regulatory compliance, and actually plan for and work on reducing their impact.  This calls for more specific steps and may require a detailed onsite assessment of what improvements should be made and how.

There are a number of approaches textile facilities can take to work on these issues.  One way is to work internally, using index results to guide their efforts.  The SAC has at least one supplier member that has communicated openly about its internal efforts and success, reporting hundreds of thousands of dollars of annual savings in electricity and water consumption.

Alternatively, companies may choose to seek external support, such as an energy, water and waste audit to identify specific problems, for example water/steam leaks, sub-optimal equipment settings, or improper storage of waste. A third option is one Nike has taken, and that is to work closely with an organization such as bluesign that specializes in textile chemistry and production processes.  This approach focuses more on the selection/sourcing of the best chemicals, materials and processes.  These efforts in combination with efficiency improvements also greatly reduce environmental impact and cost.

Regardless of the approach, it is in the economic interest  of the suppliers, as well as the brands and retailers, to implement these improvements, as cost savings may be shared.  Sharing of savings can be incentivized by programs where the brand or retailer provide some or all of the funds for the auditing and/or training that will guide the suppliers in being more cost effective. 

Additionally, the environmental benefits from these efforts will reach even further, being felt directly in the countries where these facilities operate, and indirectly by the consumers around the world who are demanding clothing produced in a more sustainable fashion.

Michael Richardson, P.E., LCA & sustainable design sr. project manager, SGS.
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