Sustainability in the apparel business is not a trend anymore. The clothing industry is the 3rd most polluting industry after the meat and the oil industry. We can’t go back and undo the harm, but we can make things better now, and in the near future, by deciding. We want to make a change, we want to make as little impact on this planet as possible.
What makes an apparel brand sustainable? Well, to be honest, nothing! As soon as you produce a garment, you have put one garment too much onto this earth’s surface. One could argue that there are enough products already, but by running a sustainable business you will educate your consumers. You make them more aware of what is going on and what better choices they can make. This is the number one step to sustainability: Awareness!!!
There are many approaches and many things to consider. As a start, here are 9 steps to think about and implement in your brand, to reach a more sustainable apparel business. In many of the steps, there are questions to ask yourself, more as a thought experiment, to easier get to your solutions and to eventually do what’s best for your brand and its customers.
To start a sustainable apparel brand you need to have the right mindset. Once you have chosen to take the environmentally friendly route, there is no going back. To implement sustainability in a brand means serious commitment. Either you go full speed at it, or you don’t. Again, the conscious customer that is going to be attracted by your brand values, wants honesty, authenticity, and transparency. They want to know where your products are made, they want to know about what materials and they want to know your goal and plan so they can help you reach it.
2. Idea & customer need
What’s so special with your business idea and product?
What problem does your product or brand solve?
What steps are you taking to make less environmental harm?
Is there an actual need for your product?
Do you have a unique idea and product? If not, you will always be number 2, or 3 or yet another brand on the market.
It’s a crowded space and you need to get noticed, and noticed for the right reasons. How does your product help your customers? What are the reasons the customers should buy your product before buying another brand’s? If you show your customers that you care about this earth, they can make a small difference too, by buying your products. What are you trying to accomplish that’s bigger than some clothes?
3. Design & collection
Sustainability starts with design.
The average life of a product is 2.2 years. If you design a timeless product to last, to be reused, to be recycled, and to be part of a closed loop system, then the product lifecycle will increase enormously. The environmental impact can be reduced through design. Could you use design techniques to reduce waste? Could you design clothes with multiple uses and functions to increase its versatility? Could you prolong the product’s lifecycle through design? Could you foster good consumer use, such as wash, care, repair, reuse and recycle through your design?
Also, think about all the components incorporated in the product. Are the materials recycled, is the manufacturer ethical and pays the workers a good wage? Preferably pick materials and manufacturers that use less water, energy, and chemicals.
4. Sustainable materials
One big part of your apparel brand and the collection will be the materials in each product. Choose eco friendly suppliers and materials over suppliers that don’t have sustainability a priority.
Work with certified suppliers that have a goal to reduce the carbon footprint. Learn the basics of materials so you can maximize the chances of picking the right fabric for your product purpose. Know what the different types of materials do and their environmental impact. Know your sources. Work with trusted, transparent, certified suppliers that push sustainability and work towards aggressive goals.
Some things you can do:
- consolidate your sourcing. Work with fewer suppliers
- recycled materials
- certified materials
- organic cotton, hemp, tencel, linnen, & modal are not that harsh on the environment
- “pure” 100% materials, for easier recycling
- mixed materials, for more durable fabrics
- dead stock and leftover materials, to use fantastic fabrics that are already produced and sit on a shelf in a warehouse
- use materials that have been naturally dyed, without toxic inks
5. Ethical manufacturing
Pick manufacturers that have sustainability a priority. Work with factories that care for their workers. Healthy and happy workers, usually equal great products. Find manufacturers that are energy efficient, low in water & chemical usage. Sign a code of conduct to make sure the factory is child labor free, has good working conditions and fair wages. Also, how can you work with your manufacturer to decrease the waste? Can you do something with the material waste from your production?
When your garments are finished and ready to be shipped, how can the products be transported in a less harmful way? Some things to be considered are to source materials & production in the same continent. This automatically reduces your shipping. Ocean & rail shipping is a better alternative to truck & air.
Have you optimized you boxes, or are they half full?
Are you shipping hanging garments or folded?
When your products reach the warehouse, is it set up for efficient picking? Is the warehouse energy efficient?
The shipping boxes you are using, are those recycled boxes?
And how much plastic are you packing your products in? Is this necessary?
7. Product care & afterlife
You’ve done everything you can until now to have a low impact. Now the product is in your customers hands. This is where information and education is extremely important. How can you control that the decisions your customers make are on the better, sustainable side? Have instructional care labels and hangtags in all your products. Do you have a repair, resell and recycle service? If not, can you partner with one? Do you have an educational website where the customers can learn all about your products and how they should take care of them to last longer? Take a look at our sustainability guide here: http://www.apparelentrepreneurship.com/your-guide-to-sustainability/
There are certain standards that indicate positive production methods, good practices, and better fabric choices. There are a range of certifications out there helping us consider the environment. Certifications give manufacturers and suppliers credibility. It can help your choice of fabrics and factories. We have put together a list of different environmental certifications for you, used in the apparel business.
This industry is moving so fast. Every week there is new research results on what is happening in the apparel industry related to sustainability. Many manufacturers and suppliers have taken things in their own hands and applied structures and processes to reduce the environmental harm and to produce more eco-friendly products. They run sustainability projects to provide brands with better alternatives and cleaner manufacturing. There is no possibility to learn it all at once and be done. You need to constantly keep learning, keep educating yourself to stay up to date with what is happening so that you can make better choices. The certification organizations put out new data all the time on their websites. Also when you visit sourcing fairs, there are always lectures and presentations on the latest finds in sustainability. Attend those to broaden your knowledge.
We at Apparel Entrepreneurship provide insights and new tools regarding sustainability continuously. We want to make it easier for you to make better choices. This is our world, if we don’t try to improve and run “cleaner” businesses, soon we won’t have a planet to run a business on. Subscribe to our newsletter below to receive the latest updates. You can watch a 45 min presentation about starting a sustainable apparel brand in the Member Zone.
If you have any questions or if I can help you with your apparel business, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org