Original article published via Lenzing AG Carved in Blue | November 2, 2017
Tricia Carey | Director Global Business Development – Denim at Lenzing Fibers
Textile Exchange is celebrating its 15th year and at its 2017 Textile Sustainability Conference in Washington, D.C., October 9-11th, participants shared their goals and ideas on how to accelerate sustainable business practices in the textile industry. Some of our future leaders were among the attendees
Textile Exchange’s founders joined more than 500 people, representing hundreds of companies from dozens of countries to share best practices, the latest research and state-of-the-art solutions for making apparel in the most earth-friendly ways possible.
Carved in Blue spoke with three Fashion Institute of Technology students who attended the conference— Chui, Jillian and Sarah, all graduating next spring with degrees in Textile Development and Marketing. They told us what the experience taught them about sustainability in their chosen field, and what they see as the possibilities and the obstacles for the future of sustainable apparel and denim production.
First we wanted to know what impressed them the most at the Textile Exchange conference, which aims to fashion a roadmap to sustainable textile production?
Chui noted the spirit of camaraderie among such a diverse group. “The diversity in the point of views presented—from fiber farmers and manufacturers to yarn spinners, large fashion brands, and textile producers—was such a unique way to look at and approach the problems that the textile industry is facing,” she said. “I was astounded by the amount of support everyone had for each other at the conference. There were businesses helping each other to develop sourcing strategies, big brands talking to local farmer cooperatives about how they can support local agricultural industries all over the world, and all with the goal of trying to lessen their impact on our environment.”
Jillian noticed that too, and said that, while many of the proposals she heard from the diverse group seemed complicated, the sense of potential gave her hope. “More than half the ideas I had never heard of, and the ones that I had heard of were more complex than I expected,” she told us. “There are so many people around the world that are developing at different levels and I found it relieving that the world situation is not as desperate and hopeless as it seems, but that there are actually so many people trying to make a difference every day.”
Sarah was moved to note that it is business that is doing much of the most important work. “The conference represented the handful of corporations that are embodying sustainable practices, but are also making tremendous impacts within textile developments,” she said. “It’s this small percentage that has the ability to make global change, and there is so much more that still needs to be explored.”
These are students, and, while they have had some opportunity to work in the industry while at FIT, we wondered how their experience at the Textile Exchange conference related to their studies.
It turns out that what they’re learning is very much aligned with the goals outlined in Washington this month. For Chui, it was empowering because the industry is already working with fibers, practices and products that further the circular economy. “At the Fashion Institute of Technology, sustainability is a major focus of our curriculum, because the industry we are entering has a huge negative impact on the environment,” she said. “Learning about things that harm the environment is extremely important, but as a student faced with these scenarios, I feel overwhelmed and somewhat unprepared. The Textile Exchange conference presented a lot of solutions—small steps each part of the industry can take to combat the impact that we make on the environment.”
And the possible paths are various, Sarah learned, something that the new generation of industry leaders must realize if there’s to be a more sustainable future. “The conference showed that sustainability is a multi-prong issue and there is no one single way to tackle it,” she said. “With what I’ve learned during this week, I will be able to contribute to all my courses and involvements whether it’s financing, manufacturing, supply chain or education.”
Meanwhile, Jillian was delighted to learn that many businesses from the region she is particularly focused on are at the forefront of these issues. “I have a heart for Latin America, and it is often not one of the first places that people think of when they hear textiles. But if you listen to the market, it is bustling with opportunities,” she said. “From cotton and wool in Argentina to cashmere in Peru, there are a million different industries that were mentioned at the conference and are potential changing points in the industry.”
And what will be the biggest challenges—in sustainable apparel production in general and for denim in particular—that these students believe they’ll face as they enter the workforce in earnest?
The short answers were “water” and “waste.”
“Water is used throughout the entire supply chain and it’s also the natural resource that’s the most vulnerable,” said Sarah. “Even with the new advancements in fibers, dyeing and manufacturing, water usage and quality are the hardest to battle.”
Chui wholeheartedly agrees and believes that applies to denim in particular, too. “From the cultivation of crops, to preparing the fibers, to finishing fabric, all use this resource,” she said. “Change in water consumption should involve sourcing more sustainably grown/manufactured fibers and creating the standard practice of using closed-loop production systems that do not create wastewater that can contaminate our freshwater sources.”
Jillian sees materials conservation as all important in apparel production in general, and water conversation as a special issue in denim production. “It is amazing to hear how various fast-fashion companies are coming up with new ways to use recycled fibers and sustainable growing methods, but they are still the biggest waste producers because not only is it fast fashion and goes out of style after a short while, but the quality is cheap and wears down so quickly,” she said. “One can hardly keep even a T-shirt from some of these companies for more than a single season because it will start to show heavy signs of wear. If they can start to solve this problem, I think we will be able to advance in greater strides.”
When it comes to denim, Jillian worries about pollution from dyes and water use. “On average it can take up to 10,000 liters of water to make a single pair of jeans,” she lamented. “Not only is this a huge amount of water, but in most factories the majority of untreated wastewater, which is still chock full of dyes and chemicals, goes back into rivers and the ocean. Many companies filter only a low amount of water, and then dump the rest. How can that be good for the environmental system and the people that live around the factories? It causes a wealth of health problems. And that is where the denim industry needs to fix itself.”
We could see that these future leaders of our industry are well versed in the issues. But what about the consumers of their generation? Will they be willing to pay more for sustainable textiles?
We found a mixture of hope and doubt. Some will, some won’t, says Jillian, and she believes that’s partly the fault of businesses that haven’t been forthright about their practices. “There are people who care and will pay what they need to, choosing wisely the products that we put our money into,” according to Jillian. “Our minds have been tricked too many times by companies that claim to be organic, use sustainable practices, pay fair wages, among others, but in reality the companies are lying just to get our money.”
But she’s hopeful too. The answer is found in honesty — and storytelling. “If we can be able to see where our products are coming from, the stories behind them, and the proof of where we are putting our hard earned dollars, I believe that my generation will slowly begin to turn around and wake up to what is happening,” she said. “It will be a long and hard process, but someone needs to be willing to take the risk and go for it.”
Sarah sees it in a similar way, but believes that it’s up to the industry, and not consumers, to make the necessary adjustments. “I’d like to think optimistically, but unfortunately I think that the majority who will not pay for sustainable textiles far outweighs the small percentage that will,” she said. “I feel it is up to the companies to make these practices a norm rather than a choice. There are too many variables that contribute to the decision-making of consumers as a whole, whereas a corporation is a concise entity with the ability to streamline sustainable practices.”
Chui, however, believes in consumers her age. “Yes!” said Chui. “I think that consumers of my generation are extremely concerned with what’s happening to our environment, and are actively looking for alternatives that are more sustainable.”