Sustainable Apparel Coalition

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An Open Conversation on Materials in Fashion: Key Takeaways and Learnings from Thought Leaders and Industry Experts 

In our recent virtual panel discussion on materials in fashion, industry experts gathered to speak candidly about the environmental impacts of materials and how to scale solutions to make sustainable production mainstream in the apparel industry. As we learned in the panel, between 16-18% of carbon emissions in the industry are related to material extraction, so this topic is a hotspot for improvement if we want to create a greener future for fashion. 

Moderated by journalist Alden Wicker, the panel featured:

  • La Rhea Pepper, CEO of Textile Exchange
  • Jesse Daystar, Chief Sustainability Officer, VP of Sustainability, Cotton Incorporated
  • Krishna Manda, Senior Manager Sustainability Integration, Lenzing Group
  • Brad Boren, Director of Innovation & Sustainability, Norrona Sport
  • Helene Vallin, Buyer/Material Development, Salomon Sports
  • Cashion East, Director of Analytics, Higg Co
  • Jeremy Lardeau, VP of the Higg Index, SAC

If you missed the panel, don’t fret. Below, we share key takeaways and learnings from the event, and you can also watch the replay here. 

Q: Do you think capsule collections are useful for reducing the emissions footprint of a brand? Do they have a place in the sustainable fashion game?

“I’m not sure if it’s useful to have a capsule collection because you will need the same amount of energy and resources to create a capsule collection.” – Helene Vallin, Salomon Sports

Q: We’re at a point when consumers and governments are asking brands to provide environmental footprint reporting… where are we? 

“There are requirements at the EU commission level to crack down on sustainability claims in the EU markets. There are two key initiatives: the green claims initiative looks at any environmental footprint calculation. Those are made with consistent robust methodology — no shortcuts on data. Carbon footprints will likely have to follow this methodology. The second one is empowering consumers to ensure that they are receiving trusted information. Right now, sustainability claims are like the wild wild west, so the EU is trying to regulate that. It creates complexities for brands who want to enter these markets. But the general idea is to prevent unverified, untrustworthy sustainability claims. The SAC taking on the MSI and opening it up to the industry is precisely why we exist: to reduce duplicity and reduce the work to make it easier for brands to make better decision-making and better outcomes.” – Jeremy Lardeau, Sustainable Apparel Coalition 

“Government incentives can do a lot of things. There has to be a mix between that and company responsibility. We want to drive change in the industry, but we have to do it in a way so that it doesn’t cost the consumer too much money.” – Brad Boren, Norrona 

 Q: How often do you find that materials with a smaller climate impact and fewer emissions might have a larger water or chemistry footprint, and how do you balance these different competing concerns? 

“You have to take the holistic approach. We are not competing materials against each other; we are looking for the best in class. It’s about moving materials into continuous improvement. I’ll take wool, for example. They’ve had a history of overgrazing or degradation of soils. There’s huge potential for natural fibers to make a difference in regenerative practices when it comes to soil or biodiversity. For synthetics, it’s really simple: it’s about recycling.” – La Rhea Pepper, Textile Exchange 

Q: Before the Higg MSI retired the single score, there was messaging saying that materials like alpaca and silk were the worst materials and that we should switch to synthetic fibers. How do you respond to that? 

“That’s why we say we need to look for the best in class. All fibers have different functions, so we have to look at the whole picture. But the thing about LCAs (Life Cycle Assessment) is that even if they give us a point of reference, it doesn’t factor in microfiber or end-of-life. For every fiber, we need to take a holistic perspective and look at the entire life cycle. Acrylic may be a good fake fur, but it has a lot of microfibers. That’s why we are moving to science-based data to move forward.” – La Rhea, Textile Exchange

“The heart of the MSI is to develop a data-driven approach. We take scientific methodologies and match them with data. LCA tries to create a consistent look at all the different impacts. We are continuing to evolve the tool, and the MSI is certainly a living database. User interactions are our strongpoints. It’s a continuous improvement and quest to make the data more robust.” – Cashion East, Higg

Q: Does the LCA system end up favoring man-made fibers? Where’s the tension coming from between ‘please prove your sustainability claims’ and ‘we don’t think the LCA should be used in that way’? 

“LCA is a holistic approach to measuring sustainability metrics. It’s a tool, but it’s one tool. It doesn’t consider social or economic sustainability. So we can’t just look at the LCA. That being said, I do find LCA useful. But comparing fibers between one another is a very resource-intensive process. It’s hard to get this work done. And there are trade-offs. Cotton might be better with greenhouse emissions but horrible with water. That’s why I believe there’s no silver bullet for sustainability.” – Jesse Daystar, Cotton, Inc. 

“LCA is only one tool. We need to use other tools to think about the social aspects, animal treatment, etc. So even at companies like Lenzing, we are using the same type of methodology as the MSI. There are definitely benefits to understanding where the hotspots are in regards to environmental impact. But we need to use a multi-criteria framework; there is no perfect tool and no perfect database. There’s a different functionality for each type of fiber, and we need to focus on how we can improve each one.” – Krishna Manda, Lenzing Group 

“The main idea here is to find materials with the least impact on the environment. Companies produce materials, and then they do the LCA, but we should reverse this way of processing. We should first think of the LCA, and then produce the material.” – Helene Vallin, Salomon Sports

Q: Are consumers truly paying more for sustainable brands? 

“If we can show that our product is durable and consumers can see the value in that, price doesn’t become an issue. We design so that it lasts. If you want to make a sustainable product, you have to prioritize durability. We need to move away from ‘you can use this product for six months, and then you can recycle it.’ That is not sustainable.” – Brad Boren, Norrona

“I don’t care what preferred fiber you’re looking at; these preferred materials cost more. There are investments that need to be made. We need to shift from a price paradigm to a value paradigm. The real barrier to growth is market access and market commitment. The business world is stuck on the current price paradigm, which has created all the pollution, the poverty, the problems. Brands need to move past the price paradigm.” – La Rhea Pepper, Textile Exchange

“The paradigm should also come from, “How do we define innovation? And are people willing to pay and invest in it?” We need to grow niche sustainability products and scale them into the mainstream.” – Krishna Manda, Lenzing Group

Overall, as our moderator Alden Wicker noted, the world has evolved in recent years. Thanks to government regulations and consumer demands, there is a real incentive for companies to engage in sustainability practices to make their businesses future-proof, especially in the post-Covid era. By investing in innovations, using holistic approaches and science-based data, and applying a multi-criteria framework to make decisions, it can be possible to scale the industry’s ability to reduce environmental impact in materials. There is a big future for companies, both big and small, to go in this direction. 

Intrigued and want to hear the full conversation? Watch/listen to the replay here. 

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