Amid mounting concerns about the health and wellbeing of the Earth and its inhabitants, environmental sustainability and social equity have joined economic considerations as basic precepts of viable business models, including those for numerous textile manufacturers. And many manufacturers have realized that sustainable initiatives — such as installation of solar panels on the roofs of their plants, state-of-the-art energy-efficient lighting and machinery; new dyeing and finishing technologies that reduce the amount of chemicals or water needed to process textiles, or even eliminate their use completely; and water treatment systems that allow for the complete recovery and reuse of process water — can provide economic savings in addition to reducing a company’s environmental impact. Also, biobased precursors are being developed that replace petroleum-based precursors in man-made fiber production; and other biobased man-made fibers are already on the market, as are recycled-content man-made and natural fibers. These and other developments have been reported in Textile World Asia’s pages and on TextileWorldAsia.com.
There are few major textile manufacturers, retailers or brands that don’t point out their sustainability credentials. Many include a sustainability page on their websites and proudly list third-party eco-certifications, participation in initiatives such as Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, use of organic cotton or recycled polyester, take-back programs to recycle used textiles, on-site recycling facilities, infrastructure improvements and other evidence of their commitment.
Quality Versus Quantity
However, one important factor seems to have received less attention in the discussions about sustainability. All the hype about energy and resource savings, emissions and hazardous chemical usage reductions, and cutting landfill waste by recycling hasn’t really zeroed in on the issue of product quality, or how consumer behaviors and buying habits related to the choice between quantity and quality, can affect overall sustainability. One can make a choice, for example, between fast, throwaway fashion and lasting, sustainable fashion.
As David Sasso, vice president of sales for United States-based Buhler Quality Yarns Corp., sees it, “The most sustainable method in manufacturing is to spend a few more dollars to make it last longer.“
Buhler’s yarns, spun from high-quality Supima® cotton and Lenzing MicroTencel® and MicroModal® cellulosic fibers, are found in apparel and other textile products offered by premium brands worldwide. The company touts the transparency of its operations and its interaction with its partners to ensure high standards are kept throughout the supply chain.
When products are of higher quality and last longer, it isn’t necessary to make as many of them — nor for consumers to buy as many of them — and there are savings and reductions to be realized as a result. The manufacturer, brand or retailer might make fewer, higher-priced pieces, but, in the end could realize the same profit. The consumer might pay a little more per piece, but she would be more discerning about the quality and design of an article and, in the end, could enjoy using or wearing it for a longer time.
The idea of “less is more”— producing and buying fewer, higher-quality products — runs counter to the current fast fashion trends that encourage consumers to buy ever-more stuff by constantly offering new styles at ever-lower prices, and often of ever-lower quality. Such trends may keep factories busy churning out product, but at what real cost? Fast fashion garments tend to have short life cycles because they don’t hold up or the colors fade after even two or three washings, and/or the consumer tires of them quickly. They also may be produced without regard for the impacts of the production on the environment or factory workers. And, because they are so inexpensive, they are easily discarded without much forethought.
“Don’t worry about how much energy you’re using in manufacturing — the consumer wastes more energy wasting product than you could ever waste in manufacturing yarn,” Sasso said, adding: “We talk about recycling, but what good is recycling if the [recycled-content] product doesn’t last? If you don’t need to buy product as often, it may mean there are fewer sales, but the world, the climate, the population, growth, food — all this has got to balance out, and one day we’re not going to have a choice.”
It is reported that consumers are increasingly driving brands and retailers to “clean up their act,” so to speak, with regard to the conditions under which factory workers are expected to work, and to the waste and pollution that result from the use of antiquated, inefficient technologies and hazardous processing chemicals. And, it appears that some eco- and socially conscious consumers are becoming disenchanted with fast fashion as well. In shifting the focus from quantity to quality, consumers could save money in the end because they wouldn’t need to buy so many articles of clothing.
Quality And Transparency
In promoting quality, the producer must convince downstream partners, from the brand and retailer to the retail consumer, that the higher quality of his product is worth the higher price. And to ensure product quality, he must expect no less from his suppliers. As Sasso said, “If you are going to provide quality solutions for the brands and retailers, you need to lead the supply chain rather than follow it.”
Providing transparency with regard to the raw materials and processes used in production is key to such efforts. Third-party certifications provide objective proof of a product’s quality and sustainability related to the raw material and processing chemicals used. Using the highest-quality raw materials and state-of-the-art machinery helps reduce the incidence of defects and seconds.
“You have to look at the product cycle from the beginning through to the consumer and the end of product life,” Sasso said. “With the lack of knowledge nowadays and the tremendous pressure on price points, a lot of products are made that are not designed to last. At Buhler, for example, we continually justify the use of Pima cotton rather than regular cotton, or U.S. Pima rather than Pima from other parts of the world. Some extra-long-staple cotton is not as strong as U.S. Pima.“
Sometimes, there may be a trade-off, such as using a less-eco-friendly processing chemical to improve the quality and durability of the end product. “You may complain that a manufacturer is using a questionable chemical, but if that chemical causes the garment to last longer or reduces torquing and pilling, there may be an advantage to using it, so the consumer will want to wear the garment and not throw it away,” Sasso noted.
Furthermore, if the entire process is transparent, the downstream user may indeed find that a higher-quality end product does not cost more than one of lower quality. “It’s a matter of looking at the entire process and engineering the product to be longer lasting, but a lot of times, that doesn’t mean it is higher in price,” Sasso said, noting that when processes are not fully transparent, some producers will take advantage of a customer’s lack of knowledge and charge a higher-than-justified price for inferior product.
Common Sense Rules
In the end, sustainability relates to practicality and common sense. There are limited resources to go around, and a product made with care and high-quality materials will last longer and have more value than one turned out quickly and carelessly. It follows logically, then, that there will be reduced resource consumption and waste.
“Nobody predicts that we’re going to have an abundant supply of natural resources,” Sasso remarked. “It’s the opposite, so we have to start thinking of these things now.”