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Unearthing the facts
By Betsy Cummings
July 2010

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What’s helpful and what’s harmful when it comes to eco-friendly apparel? We present 21 little-known facts to clear the air.

Organic isn’t the first and last word when it comes to eco-friendly apparel. Being green is much more than a fabric choice. And, even your fabric choices aren’t so obvious (or trustworthy). To set the record straight – and expose some overlooked details – here are 21 truths you need to know about eco-friendly apparel, and the key strategies to make them work for you.

1. Fact: There are a multitude of eco certifications to choose from.

Like buildings that receive a LEED certification, apparel has its own sustainability labels. It’s the accepted way of ensuring that the clothing lives up to the organic or recycled label it receives. There are dozens of labels available, and while that means a wide range of choice, it also creates confusion without one single standard, because different certifications cover different aspects of the manufacturing process.

Stefan Bergill, sales manager for econscious (asi/51656), based in Petaluma, CA, relies on the GOTS label. It stands for Global Organic Textile Standard, a worldwide standard developed for organic fibers and introduced in 2006. "That’s a really good label to look at," he says, because it addresses not only the sustainability of the fiber being used, but also the entire manufacturing process. The International Oeko-Tex Association is another certification that tests for harmful substances in textiles. "Although not an environmental label per se, it proves that the product does not have things like cancer-causing or damaging residue left in the garment," he notes. "By not having residue, it’s probably a good indication it was made responsibly."

For Jason Neve, creative director of Vancouver-based Boardroom Eco Apparel (asi/40705), the bluesign seal of approval is the most reliable designator of green apparel for the promotional product industry. Tracking the production cycle of a cotton T-shirt – from growing, spinning and dyeing to knitting, cutting and sewing – is a lengthy, Herculean task. The bluesign organization may come the closest to accomplishing this task, as it assigns a quality standard along the entire production chain. "The only mark that can guarantee environment, health and safety is the bluesign standard," Neve says.
Currently the textile industry doesn’t have its own regulatory group (the current certifiers are all outside organizations). Experts say they’ve heard talk of assembling a protocol for determining which garments can be labeled green, though plans for that seem far from imminent.

2. Fact: Not all certificates mean the same thing.

Generally speaking, says Bergill, there are two common certificate types that distributors are likely to encounter: factory certificates and transaction certificates. The former certifies that a factory is organic; the latter that only a specific shipment is organic.

3. Fact: Like fabrics, certificates come blended.

Often, only parts of a garment (including labels) are organic, says Aleida Junda, of Denver-based Colorado Trading & Clothing Company (asi/45792). In that case, distributors should look for what’s called a "blended certificate," which covers only those parts deemed organic. 

4. Fact: "Eco-friendly" is a misleading term.

Plenty of suppliers say their apparel is eco-friendly, but many of them can’t back it up, especially without certification. Their intentions could be sinister (intentionally deceiving the customer) or misguided (abiding by a different standard of being green). Look for items that have specific information instead of generic titles – organic cotton vs. green – and then look for certifications to back them up. With those things in place, distributors can go deeper and ask questions to evaluate a supplier’s manufacturing process and prove it for themselves.

5. Fact: Suppliers will go out of their way to answer your tough questions ...

... and if they don’t, they don’t deserve your business. For example, knowing that a polyester shirt made out of recycled plastics isn’t enough. Conrad Franey, chief marketing officer for St. Louis-based Gateway CDI (asi/202515) suggests finding out more. "How much energy was expended to take those bottles and exchange them?" Franey says. "Or where was the garment made and how far are you shipping it?" Finding out the environmental impact of an item requires asking questions about every manufacturing and shipping step along the way.

6. Fact: Relationships trump regionalism when it comes to verifying.

It is true that, on average, factories that operate on the cheap abroad will cut more corners when it comes to sustainability. But, that doesn’t mean you can instantly trust the manufacturer in your backyard, says Neve. "Whatever community has the smallest footprint," he says, regardless of whether that’s in Los Angeles or China, is a key consideration when going green. Junda adds that she wouldn’t necessarily trust a supplier simply because it operates within the U.S. "I have learned through the years that knowing the people you are working with and having long-term, trustworthy relationships with them is far more relevant than where they are located," she says.

7. Fact: Manufacturers are closing the loop by taking back their old garments.

Boardroom offers its clients the opportunity to bring back "used and tired" polyester items for recycling. That closes the loop, fosters a strong relationship with clients and keeps eco-friendly apparel on the table for future buys. "If you don’t start setting it up now, where you’re starting to take back your own product or other people’s products and putting it back into new product, you’re not going to be able to do business," says Boardroom President Mark Trotzuk.

8. Fact: Sales of organic cotton and textiles are increasing.

For all the worries about the higher price of organic cotton and textiles, sales were still $4.2 billion in 2009 – an increase of $1 billion from 2008. That information – when used to convince a client who believes eco is a fading trend – can lead to sealing a sale for eco-friendly apparel.

9. Fact: Organic cotton, when done right, doesn’t require a lot more chemicals to create fabric.

The instant assumption with eco fibers and yarns is that they are better for the environment – which doesn’t take into account the measures taken to turn them into fabric and dye them. The good news is that, according to Tem McInville, general manager of Anvil Knitwear’s (asi/36350) textile facility in Honduras, organic yarn doesn’t take much more to turn into fabric and dye.

10. Fact: Bamboo grows like a weed.

That’s great news, and it is by far bamboo’s biggest selling point – how sustainable the plant is. But bamboo is a cautionary tale. "It requires loads of toxic chemicals to turn the raw fiber into a garment-ready material," Neve says. That is why bamboo has stirred up controversy among some industry experts. As a distributor, you can sell bamboo, but be frank with customers about what it takes to create the fabric.

11. Fact: Sell-through can help the environment just as much as an eco fabric.

A blended garment might not consist of entirely of eco fabric, but it can keep costs down, maintain performance, give sales a boost and actually make a greater impact on the environment in the long-run. "If the garment is 50% recycled polyester (vs. 100%), but you sell more goods, you may actually replace more conventional polyester in the marketplace."

12. Fact: Not all fabrics have an eco-friendly version.

Nylon, for example, can’t be recycled. Watch out for the use of recycled and organic labels and be sure they are applied properly.

13. Fact: The choice of fabric only accounts for a small percentage of the lifetime environmental impact of a garment.

It’s true, organic cotton alone only accounts for 3%-5% of that impact. Another 50% occurs in the customer’s hands: the washing, wearing and disposing of an item. Inform your customers that half of the responsibility of being eco-friendly occurs when the shirt reaches their hands, and perhaps they will live up to their end.

14. Fact: Embroidery is less harmful than screen printing when it comes to decoration.

A GOTS-certified cotton shirt is only as good as the decoration printed on it. It loses all its green currency if the inks used to screen print it are damaging to the environment. So how to mitigate the impact for imprinted apparel? Embroidery is ultimately the safest choice because there’s no runoff or chemicals. "Generally embroidery is less harmful than printing," Junda says. You can go the extra mile by considering things like recycled yarn for embroidery to make it even more beneficial.

As for screen printing, look for water-base inks. Bergill points out that many screen printers are using inks without phthalates and chemicals, thanks to stricter laws in Europe and states like California. Disposing of inks and dyes properly, instead of just washing them down the drain when cleaning the screens, is important, too.

15. Fact: Customers respect distributors who position themselves as the eco expert, and back it up.

Know more than your customers, Neve says. "Do your research," he says, "and you’ll be handsomely rewarded." This includes knowing the difference between various eco-friendly fibers, as well as how they’re processed and manufactured. If the customer knows a lot more than you do, not only will they see through your generalities, but they won’t feel like you are serious about a cause they are deeply committed to.

16. Fact: The price gap between an organic and a conventional cotton shirt is shrinking, but the differences can still be dramatic.

"It’s about two to one," says Christopher Neary, president of Vertical Source Inc. (asi/93632) in Shrewsbury, NJ. And it goes up from there, with recycled polyester costing as much as four times more than a regular cotton T-shirt.

17. Fact: Price is a factor with eco-friendly apparel.

For many, purchasing decisions almost always come down to the cheaper products, and this often puts eco-friendly clothing at a disadvantage. More and more companies are trying to be green, but helping the environment isn’t always at the top of their to-do list – they may love their budget more than the environment. "In the end, most people are not going to make their buying decision just because it’s green," says Kriya Stevens, marketing manager for econscious. "They have to love the product and the quality of the product. The fact that it happens to be sustainable is a bonus. But, it can’t be the only reason."

18. Fact: Trends come first.

As counterintuitive as it seems, going green is usually the last reason a buyer purchases an eco-friendly item, industry experts say. Sell the trends and style of the product as much as the sustainability.

19. Fact: "Crunchy, granola hippy wear that looks green is out," Neve says.

 Instead, "technical outerwear that performs" is in – that’s what draws customers today. Many recycled polyester pieces will have the performance properties that customers crave, and blended clothing will offer a little bit from both worlds. Either way, eco’s old image of heavy, colorless apparel is long gone.

20. Fact: Young buyers are green buyers.

 "The younger the customer, the more emphasis they put on sustainable and socially responsible products," says Bergill, speaking from experience. Also, many environmental trends start on the West Coast and move east across the country, gaining in popularity as they go, says Franey.

21. Fact: Corporate America loves going green when it can.

"We have seen interest from all of our customers, but the biggest hits come from big corporations, especially those that have an image to project," says Neve. Going green is becoming a more common component in a company’s branding initiative these days, and that push often shows up in branded materials – a huge opportunity for apparel distributors and suppliers. Putting the newest green products across the desks of executives is a good way to remind them of branding opportunities that can not only get their name seen in more innovative ways, but with a responsible message and product, as well.

The key, of course, is spotting industries and companies that are really looking to go green. Three market segments where distributors report seeing eco-apparel sales on the rise are car companies, the music industry and Canada. Also big, not surprisingly, are environmentally friendly organizations and nonprofits.

Big events can also mean big money for distributors. Large corporations looking to capture the public’s attention often pick national or international events to do so. Sponsors of the Olympics, for example, were scrambling for green apparel during the most recent games, says Neve. For the distributors who find those opportunities, not only can you receive a gold medal for environmental protection, but you’ll achieve a fat wallet, as well.

Betsy Cumming is a senior writer for Wearables.

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