Big step in the right direction
Far from being the preserve of the hippy fringe, an increasing number of big-name apparel companies are turning to sustainable development and green purchasing trends.
According to H&M public relations manager Cher Chui Yuet-shuet, her company is committed to reducing its environmental impact. Besides paying close attention to its manufacturing waste water, H&M is involved in organic purchasing and is making great strides in the use of organic, chemical-free cotton.
This was driven not only by an awareness of the damage that conventional cotton farming could do to the environment, but also by customer demand, Ms Chui said. 'This does good for the world - and it's good for cost reductions as it uses less chemicals, water and energy.'
Sean Cady, the director for environment, health and safety at Levi Strauss, said Levi first used organic cotton in the late 1990s when it started blending.
Levi's lines include its Eco Line, with products boasting a minimum of 50 per cent organic cotton, although most products ranging from dress shirts to jeans are in fact 100 per cent organic.
Organic cotton is not the only answer, and Levi also uses other fibres such as bamboo for its shirts and socks.
'Bamboo farming is also environmentally friendly as it ... grows naturally, is very resistant to pests and [requires] no pesticides or chemical treatment,' Mr Cady said.
Levi is also looking at more environmentally friendly factory practices which can help reduce its impact at source.
Denim scraps, for example, are collected from factories and turned into reusable materials.
'We use a lot of denim scrap in different markets, for example for insulation for the home or padding in vehicles,' he said.
The use of global waste water standards has already been in use at Levi for 14 years. 'All factories doing business with Levi must clean up their waste water before returning it to the river,' Mr Cady said.
Ms Chui said the reduction of waste water and its retreatment was essential for the apparel industry. 'In some regions water is very limited ... so this is something H&M is continuing to do.'
H&M also operates a Code of Conduct under its Corporate Social Responsibility department to teach suppliers to handle chemicals correctly and use waste water management.
As far as the supply chain process was concerned, green purchasing trends were beneficial, Ms Chui said. 'There are positive economic effects; we don't bear the cost of chemicals and it's more environmentally friendly,' she said.
She said the main challenge in implementing this process related to the short term, because going green was in essence a long-term approach. 'Ninety-nine per cent of cotton is grown in the conventional way, so it's a long process,' she said.
Because H&M does not have a manufacturing facility, it must work with suppliers to promote the benefits of organic cotton. This approach requires investment upfront, with financial and other benefits taking longer to make themselves felt. 'We need assessment in the beginning and then the results will take a long time to see,' Ms Chui said.
'We really care about the environment and we hope to reduce our environmental impact both directly and indirectly, so this is part of daily work and part of the approach of the company.'
While costs were likely to come down in the future, they were unlikely to drop to the same level as conventional raw materials, Mr Cady said.
With supply far below demand for organic cotton, and lower yields per farm per hectare, organic cotton, for example, should remain more expensive than conventional cotton in the long run. A drawback of using a green supply chain, therefore, was that financial returns might not be immediately apparent, Mr Cady said.
'Also, if you look at factories, there are not many buyers asking for more sustainable manufacturing practices.'
Today, most apparel manufacturers use contract manufacturers for the bulk of their manufacturing. Thus, if a factory only receives the occasional request to change its practice, it may not have the buyer power to aid customers asking for environmentally friendly practices.
'Waste water, for example, requires capital investment by factories and the return may not be in one year, so we see a lack of return, causing challenges for environmentally sustainable practices,' Mr Cady said.
The apparel industry has made great strides in the past few years. 'We have had a number of good wins in terms of finding great partners and suppliers of cotton [and other] fabrics that are good and environmentally friendly,' he said.
Ultimately, manufacturers and suppliers who are willing to adapt and take a longer-term view of their business are likely to be viable not only today but also in future.