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Staking A Claim
By CJ Mittica
July 2010

Apparel suppliers today cite advanced eco-friendly and performance properties in their clothing and in their marketing. But can these claims be verified? Here’s what distributors need to know.

There is no test for an organic cotton shirt.

Think about that: There is no way, with all our scientific tools, to test an eco shirt for its most distinguishing element. There is no scientific procedure where a lab can deliver a definitive verdict of “organic.” You can see a shirt, touch it and wear it and simply have no idea whether it’s made from an organic fiber or not.

“The end-consumer, or the retailer, can’t take that garment and go and test it for organic cotton. There isn’t a test,” says Mark Trotzuk, president of Boardroom Eco Apparel (asi/40705). “You can’t tell whether it was grown organically or not. Just like recycled polyester.”

In fact, the only way to know a shirt is “eco” is to take the word of the manufacturer. Yet when the elements that drive two of the leading apparel trends – eco-friendly and performance properties – aren’t visible to the naked eye, it creates uncertainty. Testing isn’t readily available or particularly useful for these fields. Advanced properties often can’t be displayed in a 30-minute sales pitch.

And so … it comes down to trust. Distributors trust suppliers that have a history of quality and with whom they’ve cultivated a relationship. Clients trust distributors to have done the work and back up their claims. “Clients know that we stand behind our products,” says Adrian Sasine, director of marketing for The Icebox (asi/229395). “So if we’re saying that it’s organic and it’s eco-friendly, then they trust that we’ve done our due diligence there.” And if that means investigating an unknown supplier further because of its unfamiliarity, so be it.

There are, though, things distributors can do to increase their diligence in this matter – and not just take supplier marketing claims at face value. First of all, ask questions. If you want to know that items are what suppliers say they are, make them prove it as best they can. Ask what the items are made of, find out the processes involved in making the items, and ask to see documentation about the supplier’s fair-labor and eco-friendly practices. “A red flag should go up for any distributor if they run into a supplier that doesn’t want to have these conversations,” says Anthony Corsano, president of Anvil Knitwear (asi/36350). “Make them answer questions about their products and their processes.”

Indeed, the last thing distributors need right now is to be purchasing items for clients that don’t live up to their own hype. Greenwashing is already regarded as a concern across all industries. Performance properties, too, come under the microscope. A lawsuit last September from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claimed that VF Corp. and its North Face label made unsubstantiated public-health claims regarding the antibacterial properties of a select style of footwear.

Next up in the false-claims crosshairs is nanotechnology, which is fueling some of the most remarkable advances, pushing apparel into surprising and undefined new directions – and often being mislabeled. “It’s marketing, it’s not nanotechnology. They even do not understand nanotechnology these days, they just use the word,” says Dr. Hoon Joo Lee, a professor at North Carolina State’s College of Textiles.

What can be done? Ultimately, the buying habits of the consumer are what matters. “At the end of the day, we can’t chase each other around and test this stuff,” says Michael Snyder, president of Snyder Apparel Sales. “What’s going to happen is the consumer is either going to like the product or not. They’re going to buy it or not.”

As is the case with most technical and product advances, success comes when client expectations are met. That’s ultimately what distributors need to keep in mind when trying to decipher which suppliers are really walking the walk and which ones are just talking. By doing the front-end work – such as checking for certification, casting a wary eye toward sales-speak and qualifying suppliers – distributors not only attempt to verify apparel claims, but also make sure that the customer walks away happy.
Here are some tactics to help along the way.

Eco Apparel: Hardly Standard
On the first page of the catalog for Boardroom Eco Apparel are the words “No Greenwashing.” It’s not necessarily a stand by the Vancouver-based supplier against the potentially eco-inflated marketing claims of some companies. Rather, it’s a simple point being made by the company: everybody’s eco standard is different. “It doesn’t come down to greenwashing,” Trotzuk says. “It comes down to how end-consumers decide how far they want to go and what their standard is.”

After all, greenwashing is muddied by the fact that there is no standard of environmentally sound practices. In fact, taken at face value, eco-friendly is a misnomer. “There’s no such thing as environmentally friendly apparel or cups or pens or anything. It’s not friendly no matter how you make it,” Trotzuk says. So, what’s left is a litmus test of inner values. What’s eco for some isn’t for others. One company donates 1% of its profit to the planet. Another encourages its customers not to print out its e-mails. Who is truly being green?

The same idea applies to eco apparel. “Consumers prefer to buy products that are eco-friendly, but we do not know what real eco-friendly products are,” says Lee. “It’s a trend, but customers are also confused.”

Most eco-friendly apparel options start (and end) with the fiber, such as organic cotton or recycled polyester. That’s a great start, says Trotzuk, but that alone only represents 3% to 5% of the total energy impact of a garment throughout its lifecycle. Eco fibers still take a lot of energy to turn into clothing. Says Lee: “A lot of people buy organic cotton products because they think it is sustainable and eco-friendly. But actually we have to spend a lot of water, and more detergent, to scour and dye and finish the cotton product.”

Basically, what seems like eco-friendly practices to some may be greenwashing to others. But there still also exists a conscious effort to market something as green whenever possible. “I think people will stretch whenever they can to call something eco. And probably to the point that it really isn’t,” says Dan Jellinek, a vice president for Touchstone Marketing Group (asi/345631).

It’s actually not a new phenomenon, though. According to one early ’90s study, by 1990 one-fourth of the household products brought to the market contained eco buzzwords such as “recyclable,” “biodegradable” or “ozone-friendly.” On the flip side, a report in 2008 by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority did find that 94% of ads with environmental claims were compliant with advertising codes. Of course, advertising codes and moral indexes are two separate entities.

What’s a distributor to do? Avoid buzz words like “green,” “eco” or even “natural,” for one; those terms are generic and can be misleading. It’s important to stress facts, such as what an item is made out of, or what eco standards it conforms to. There also should be a visible policy for working with suppliers of eco-friendly goods – a checklist of questions that you can show your customers. How is a supplier reducing its carbon footprint? How is it committed to the environment? Is it supporting fair labor and using its business for good?

A supplier’s reputation and policy can go a long way toward answering a lot of those questions. But there’s an easy way to check the claims: environmental certification. “Why should I trust somebody who’s testing their own product and have their own lab? How do I know that they are doing it correctly?” asks Trotzuk. “It really comes down to third-party verification all the way along the line.”

You see, while an organic shirt can’t be tested, the processes that created it can be monitored and regulated. Boardroom, for example, is a member of bluesign, which bills itself as “the independent industry textile standard.” It covers every step of the textile manufacturing process, from the raw materials to the final product, and even includes other areas of concern like safe working conditions. Plus, bluesign members can work with other bluesign members to ensure authenticity. It’s one of a number of standards available, including the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), the Control Union Global Recycle Standard, Cradle to Cradle certification and more.

Performance Anxiety
The drumbeat for performance apparel has been sounding for some time now. The resurrection of polyester and the emphasis on properties like moisture-management and wrinkle-resistance have become a certified trend.

But according to Snyder, when the economy sputtered, the emphasis quickly turned to price points and basics like T-shirts. That helped create a culture of “generic commentary,” in Snyder’s words, of terms like “easy care” and “stain release” that he thinks imply increased performance but in reality don’t mean much.

“How do I show somebody that my basic pique, which everybody with a pulse has one, should be selected over another?” asks Snyder, who operates as an independent representative for apparel suppliers and manufacturers. “Everybody is trying to prove their basic product outperforms everybody else’s.”

Much in the way that greenwashing has become a concern, so too has the idea of suppliers over-promoting – or even fabricating – performance capabilities at a time when practically all clothing “performs” to a higher standard than 10 or 20 years ago. What qualities are functions of the fabric? What is a true added benefit? What’s real, and what’s marketing jargon? The gray areas exist.

“It’s similar to eco, with everybody making claims about what a lot of things are,” Jellinek says. “I think that happens on the moisture-management side. I joke around that moisture-management to me means polyester.”

Consumers don’t need convincing about these properties. They know they exist, and for the most part they’ve bought into them. Items like a waterproof jacket are a given; you can pour water on it as an easy demonstration trick, but it’s not very necessary. (“I don’t know how many people are doing that these days,” Jellinek says.) It makes a distributor’s job easier, because other properties aren’t so easily verified.

But there are ways to go the extra mile. Dri Duck Traders (asi/50835), which stakes its reputation as a manufacturer of technically advanced workwear and jackets, verifies its wares in a number of ways: providing educational materials to distributors, including videotaped demos; breaking down performance features with visual icons and easy-to-digest information; having its apparel wear-tested by publications like Top Rated Gear; and sticking with finishes that have brand-name recognition, like Teflon.

“Consumers recognize Teflon when they’re talking about their pots and pans and cooking,” says Jessica Strain, sales and marketing administrator for Dri Duck, “so if they see it on a garment, it gives them extra reassurance knowing that we have those added features, and it’s a name they recognize.”

On the distributor side, The Icebox prefers to stick with recognizable brands when it comes to active sportswear, and doesn’t hesitate to satisfy clients’ curiosity if they wonder if it really works. “If somebody comes to the showroom, we’ll gladly order them a sample, and put it in their hands,” Sasine says. “If it’s a big order, it’s part of our customer service to make sure that they’re going to get at the end what they wanted in the beginning.”

Withering Consumer Demand?
If apparel manufacturers are to be held accountable for living up to their marketing claims, the pressure must be exerted from two sources: government regulation and consumer demand. While federal regulation is spotty but growing (see sidebar), consumer demand is something that can be more easily achieved.

But just because it can be done doesn’t mean it will be. Trotzuk sees a discrepancy between the actions of large corporations and smaller clients. “The bigger companies are asking the right questions,” he says. “They’re realizing they can’t go out there and make these claims, because they’re under the microscope from their shareholders and consumers.”

It’s equally varied, according to distributors, when it comes to clients demanding certification or testing. “Some people will ask that question,” says Jellinek, whose company collects such information as part of its vendor profiles. “And if they do, then we’ll provide whatever necessary paperwork there is to back it up.”

Why aren’t consumers demanding more? Most likely, it’s because there hasn’t been a large enough scandal to put them in a state of unease. Plus, higher-priced apparel suffered the last two years; buyers were willing to sacrifice quality for something that fit their budget. “This economy is a bad time to be a barometer of what’s important to people,” Snyder says.

That, of course, can and will change. “I think there’s going to be a high demand for eco again,” Strain predicts. “I could see that people would want something in their hands, something physical showing we are certified and we have those documents that we can pass along and show everyone.”

In fact, there may be increased scrutiny simply because these two leading trends are merging. Every technological advance will be gauged, in part, by its possible detriment to the environment. Eco and performance are not separate movements. “I think the consumer that’s wearing performance apparel is more in-tune with the environment than the person who’s going out and buying just a cotton T-shirt,” says Walter Wilhelm, president and CEO of Walter Wilhelm Associates, an apparel design and manufacturing consulting company.

Distributors can get ahead of the curve through due diligence and taking the time to qualify the products. Ultimately, though, their business will be influenced by one factor above all. “The honest truth in our industry is, it comes down to relationships,” Snyder says. “There are so many basic polos that if everybody’s touting all these qualities, it’s going to come down to a supplier that they trust, and many times a sales rep that they like.”

In this age of apparel, will that be enough?

C.J. Mittica is a staff writer for Counselor

Can Regulation Help?

Historically, apparel hasn’t been the subject of safety regulation, but that notion is slowly and surely changing. The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, first implemented in August 2008, began to monitor lead and phthalates in children’s products, apparel included. Antimicrobials – treatments that prevent the growth of bacteria and odor in clothing and other products – are monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because they act as a pesticide against microorganisms.

“In normal corporate apparel, antimicrobial is really the first time that I think any end-user or distributor would step forward and ask for test results,” says Michael Snyder of Snyder Apparel Sales. Snyder’s company developed an antimicrobial treatment called AP-360 (the active ingredient is a fine powder called Chitosan that’s derived from snow crabs) that is used in items from Edwards Garment (asi/51752).

The antimicrobial regulation isn’t a mere drop in the bucket. There are 256 active ingredients currently registered with the EPA; on average, three new active ingredients and 15 new uses are registered with the organization each year. And antimicrobial use of nanoparticles cannot be minimized. Nanosilver, a popular antimicrobial finish (silver’s inherent properties hinder bacteria growth) has drawn scrutiny for possibly leeching into the environment or the human body.

“We do not know what will happen if nanosilver is absorbed into the human tissue. Scientists say the nano-tissue will be accumulated inside the body,” says Dr. Hoon Joo Lee, a professor at North Carolina State’s College of Textiles. He researches combat uniform advancements, and says even the military doesn’t use nanosilver anymore.

Nanotechnology represents a tricky proposition for the apparel industry. It’s a popular marketing term, though sometimes misused. It also represents a potent lifeline for innovation in apparel, one that has certainly attracted the EPA’s attention because of its unknown ramifications. “The EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs is currently examining potential hazard, exposure, policy, regulatory and international issues that may be associated with pesticides that contain nano-scale materials,” says EPA Press Officer Dale Kemery, adding that the organization planned to release a new policy in June.

Regulations, though, are ultimately a minor part of the apparel design and production process. The pressure to safely conform is often more self-inflicted, says Walter Wilhelm, president and CEO of Walter Wilhelm Associates, an apparel design and manufacturing consulting company. “The amount of government regulations isn’t really the obstacle,” he says. “It’s more that the larger companies are putting restrictions on their own contractors as to how they’re making it. That makes it tougher for the smaller guys,” he says. – CJM

Questions to Ask

Here are some questions that distrib-utor can ask suppliers to help verify their eco-friendly and performance-property apparel claims.

  • What fabric is a garment made out of?
  • What makes the item environmentally friendly?
  • What certification does the supplier have? Is it a factory certification (which covers the factory) or a transaction certification (which applies to the specific shipment)?
  • Does the supplier practice Corporate Social Responsibility? How does it promote fair labor?
  • Are the dyes certified organic?
  • Does the supplier have eco-friendly decoration options?
  • How much energy was used to create the garment? How far does the supplier have to ship it?
  • Will the supplier take back used garments to be recycled after they have been worn?
  • For antimicrobials, what is the active ingredient?
  • Does the supplier have materials to demonstrate and explain performance properties?
  • Can documentation be produced if asked for?
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