A New Day for Sustainability
Execs See Big Impacts On the Horizon
When a headline in USA Today proclaims, “This back to school season it’s cool to be eco-conscious,” you know that sustainability has reached a new tipping point. The article, which quotes high-level execs from J.C. Penney and Target talking about the increase in “eco-friendly options” and “sustainable clothing” on store shelves this fall, also includes comments from Greg Thomsen, managing director of adidas outdoor regarding the company’s latest footwear made from ocean waste. The takeaway: The outdoor industry is no longer alone fighting the good fight for environmental responsibility.
It’s a new day for sustainability as other industries begin to shoulder efforts to bring about a broader, more diverse future for eco-correctness.
Jeff Nash, a managing partner at Futuremade confirms that this is a time of transition. “Big companies are making big commitments with top down level support for goals,” says Nash, who has a deep background in sustainability leadership within the outdoor space. He is encouraged by what he describes as a modern goal-driven approach being adopted by big fashion brand retailers toward advancing sustainability initiatives.
Like Nash, Bob Buck of Chemours, has been a strong advocate for sustainability for decades. “There is no let up in energy commitment for sustainability. But now it’s going beyond the core outdoor (audience) and into new directions,” states Buck. He highlights Chemours’ innovative collaboration with British firm Tesco in launching a UK schoolwear program that features Chemours’ PFC-Free fabric protector Teflon EcoElite.
Joe Walkuski, Texbase CEO, believes a “rising tide of accountability” is contributing to this contemporary shift toward heightened sustainability awareness and action. “The consumer is driving this trend of accountability; Consumers want to understand what goes into textiles that come in contact with their skin, and hence brands need to be accountable, and this translates to supply chain transparency,” explains Walkuski.
According to a 2015 Cone Communications Global CSR Study, 84 percent of consumers say they seek out responsible products whenever possible, and 71 percent are willing to pay more for a socially or environmentally responsible product. Farla Efros, president of the strategic firm HRC Retail Advisory says that her research has found that 85 percent of Generation Z will choose eco-friendly products over those that are not.
As these surveys suggest, purchasing solely based on price is becoming an outdated model. Younger generations shop according to value, authenticity, and trust – all qualities that tie directly to sustainability.
“People are receptive to animal welfare, organic, social responsibility, and carbon footprint. In the hierarchy of decision-making evidence now points to healthy living,” comments John McKeon, CEO of Allergy Standards, owner of Asthma & Allergy Friendly Certification Program. His mantra, “Health for planet, health for people,” taps into the wellness megatrend that McKeon believes provides ideal crossover with sustainability.
Renee Henze, marketing director for Sorona, sees a future of more plant-based fibers used in everything from packing to personal care as well as apparel. “In new product development, you have to have performance, but it has to be done sustainably,” says Henze.
Others agree. Walkuski explains, “In the past, quality was about function -- waterproofness, shrinkage, etc., and it was straightforward. Today quality is concerned with multiple attributes. Building a quality product from the very beginning includes taking a pro-active approach to sustainability all along the supply chain.”
States Nash, “The Sustainable Working Group is 10 years old, the Higg Index is four years old, and industry collaboration is on the rise. There is harmonization in tools and methodologies. From heritage companies to start ups, there’s no need to re-create the wheel, the basic framework and best practices are in place. So when an issue arises now, for instance with down or wool, the industry rallies and change happens quickly.”
In other words, we have a new starting point for sustainability.
Sustainability as a Lens to Innovation
“The bar of sustainability keeps raising every year,” says Nash, who worked at Black Diamond and The North Face prior to co-founding Futuremade, a sustainability consultancy firm that tailors solutions for clients navigating today’s complex sustainability landscape.
Interestingly, a majority of FutureMade business is coming from fashion and retail clients. “They are the ones making strong commitments to sustainability,” says Nash, who is based in Park City, Utah, and suggests that during this period of disruption big companies are looking to re-brand, restructure and/or find a unique voice and sustainability is top-of-mind.
“I was expecting to be working with smaller, independent companies but now we’re sitting with multi-national retailers willing to consider how they can re-invent themselves and what role sustainability will play,” Nash explains. “And they have big goals – with statements like ‘X percent of preferred materials by X date’ — and are publicizing these objectives. If this comes from the top-level commitment, then designers and merchandisers are empowered. That’s what drives impact.”
“By 2020 or 2022, if these firms achieve their targets, we will see positive change in the supply chain,” Nash adds.
Creating a strong story around sustainability and engaging messaging around these values will be key. Nash cites Nike’s FlyKnit as a perfect example; the shoe brings innovation to the market but with many inherent sustainable elements, such as eliminating waste in the manufacturing process.
“What we’re seeing is brands looking to make a point of differentiation, and they are using sustainability as a lens to innovation,” says Nash. “It’s a new way to build product.”
Sustainability as a Definition for Quality
A quality product is now developed with sustainability in mind from the get go, according to Walkuski. He describes quality as a “four legged stool” built on social, regulatory, chemical and performance aspects, that get communicated to all supply chain partners and ultimately the end consumer.
He explains, “An integral part of brand identity these days is the way it defines quality. Consumers have heightened awareness of social issues and want to purchase from brands they respect and trust.”
Walkuski makes a case for the industry taking a more pro-active approach in the future. In the area of chemical management, for example, historically the industry has been re-active, says Walkuski, who prior to founding Texbase worked at Patagonia in materials development. “The approach to chemical management has been let’s make sure these chemicals don’t exist, and establishing Restricted Substance Lists, for example. A pro-active approach will be the act of engineering approved chemicals into the raw materials without compromising function. And what we can do from the software side to facilitate this,” Walkuski explains.
He believes the new supply chain framework features integrated compliance. It’s not an “after the fact” process, the sustainability is already “mixed in.”
“This framework goes along with other market drivers such as regulatory programs, trade restrictions, testing requirements, and at the same time a new level of consumer awareness,” states Walkuski. “We need to forge new pathways in the supply chain as we work on more sustainable products.”
The role of compliance has dominated sustainability in recent years, and continues to influence how companies create quality products. Says Walkuski,
“If you told me 10 years ago that we would have a compliance side [of the business] I would have thought you were crazy. But at Texbase we already had a collaborative platform for secure data communication between supply chain partners and that allowed us to expand the landscape of data that we manage and build on that to solve different problems, including compliance.”
Sustainability as a Measure of Healthy Living
“There’s an expression along the lines of ‘you need to skate where the puck is going,’” says John McKeon, CEO, Allergy Standards, “and that direction is the overlap of wellness and sustainability.” As such, McKeon’s business, which owns the Asthma & Allergy Friendly Certification Program, is making a push into textiles as it looks to broaden the business and go deeper into the supply chain. McKeon presented at Texworld USA this summer in the Sourcing section, to highlight this textile agenda.
“Ours is not a sustainability certification,” explains McKeon, whose background as an ER doctor made him acutely aware of the need for awareness and education around allergies and asthma. “But it falls into the ‘good materials, good environment’ ethos.”
Textiles come into play as a means to improve air quality; indoor air quality is four to five times worse than the air outside, according to McKeon. His agency focus is on paint, cleaning products, vacuum cleaners, bedding products, and air purifiers with the objective of making a healthier home environment and how this and can positively impact an individuals health.
“Sustainability doesn’t necessarily mean health – but health and wellness is where this is moving. Consumer research shows movement beyond what’s good for the environment to what’s good for me,” says McKeon.
Particularly the indoor environment. According to McKeon, 80 percent of our time is spent indoors, essentially in “sealed air,” and of that time eight hours a day approximately is spent in the bedroom. “Which is why textiles for the bedroom are a natural fit for Allergy Standards.” McKeon also quotes recent research that “one in four Americans has asthma or allergies.”
The point, explains McKeon, is to add more value to textiles. “If you move up the supply chain and collaborate with sustainability certifications, and then move down the supply chain and work at very beginning of textile development this will result in better quality products.” He adds, “There is synergy with other certifiers.”
“A race to the bottom on price is not the future,” says McKeon. “These days you need to do more for the consumer, and the concept of trust is a priority.”
McKeon is looking to expand into the active outdoor community and has recently started work with Allied Feather and Down home products as well as Downlite on a program of “healthy down.” He sees opportunity also in performance outerwear and sleeping bags.
He says that the Asthma & Allergy Friendly Certification Program appeals to the “health maven” who is alerted to the latest health issues and environmental concerns and likely owns a Dyson vacuum cleaner and uses eco-friendly cleaning products in the home. “This consumer base is broadening all the time, as people are able to more easily find health-related information.”
McKeon agrees that the term “sustainability” is stronger than “green,” but adds, “stronger still is “healthy.”
Along these lines, Chemours’ colleagues, Bob Buck and Lisa Hardy agree with the concept that “healthy people and a healthy planet equals a healthy future. Their work with a wider assortment of outerwear brands reflects this new lifestyle approach to sustainability — as well as a shift in business strategy toward eco efforts that offer different tiers of sustainability performance based on use and need.
Buck explains: “Sustainability is good for the corporate bottom line, it’s ‘operational’ and eco has an impact.” Hardy adds, “There has been a big uptick in use of non-fluorinated products. The biggest is in Europe, but the U.S. is coming along.” Adoptions of EcoElite have grown. There are 12M hang-tags with EcoElite to date.
Hardy, continues, “Its not just the premium high end brands. That’s where it started – brands with a strong sustainability ethos. And that remains. But the message is now resonating with a different level of performance.
Chemours new chemistry fits that emerging tier of performance with brands saying, “I don’t need 30 wash performance. If it’s non-fluorinated, and sustainably sourced with five to 10 wash durability that’s fine. It is a different performance point.” Chemours’ new R2SM or R2+ chemistry has a lower price, with lower durability, yet is still a non-fluorinated product. “It’s lifestyle performance, if you will, made sustainably,” comments Hardy.
Sustainability as a Springboard for Responsible Technology
The key to the future is how to make higher performance with sustainability, says Sorona marketing director Renee Henze. “If the product doesn’t perform then there is no seat at the table. Sorona has a lot of performance aspects and we need to tell that story, and in a way that brands understand.” However, Henze notes that other factors have to align with performance. “Cost effectiveness and scale-ability for example.” Going forward, according to Henze, annually renewable resources will be increasingly important.
She highlights recent research conducted by a team at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment that compiled a report entitled, “Drivers and Challenges for the Expansion of Renewable Resource Feedstocks: The Sustainable Apparel Sector.” According to the team’s research, bio-based textiles are more frequently entering the design, development and commercial offerings of global apparel brands.
Researchers conducted a global study involving stakeholders across the apparel value chain, from raw material developers and fiber spinners to fabric mills and brands and retailers. The goal of the study was to discover how companies are thinking about and incorporating the use of bio-based textiles into their products.
Specifically, 54 percent of respondents cited customer demand as a key driver in their use of bio-based materials. Additionally, 47 percent of respondents also stated high performance as a primary reason for using bio-based materials rather than non-bio-based ingredients. And 55 percent of those surveyed along the supply chain said they are looking to increase their use of bio-based materials in the next three years.
A successful avenue of growth, and new direction for Sorona is creating innovation of Sorona with natural fibers. For example, Sorona blended with Lenzing’s Tencel enhances the attributes of the individual fibers, creating a soft, lightweight and absorbent fabric for outdoor apparel. Additionally, Sorona blended with Toray Primeflex creates a lightweight, windproof, four-way stretch woven that offers supreme flexibility for all outdoor activities.
In addition to its Sorona product, DuPont is garnering attention for its new product called Apexa, an eco-friendly biodegradable polyester. Initially developed for packaging, it is starting to gain ground in textiles as “waste” becomes more of a talking point in sustainability conversations. According to the company, Apexa is the only known polyester fiber that biodegrades, using an industrial composting process, to fully break down into simple CO2 and H2O to reduce textile waste and limit impact. Apexa can break down significantly faster in industrial landfills compared to regular polyesters.
“There’s a lot of movement in the direction of how to make renewables more biodegradable,” says Henze.
As technology continues to merge with environmental efforts, sustainable textile innovation will broaden, diversify and have even greater impact. But as Chemours’ Bob Buck is wont to say, “its not a final destination, sustainability is always going forward.”