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Starting Small

Sustainability is no longer just a buzz word; it’s a necessity. As the population on Earth continues to increase, resources including food, water, energy and materials are all required to support us, yet their ongoing availability is never guaranteed. Responsible consumers and manufacturers are looking for new ways to bring sustainability into the supply chain and finding ways to reduce waste and pollution. Whenever a writer (like myself) starts making statements like this, it’s not just a rant. I also have a responsibility to provide you, the reader, with useable content to help you think about the subject.

For those of you who are curious or are looking to plan your company’s journey down the sustainability path, you may be wondering how to begin. To borrow from one of my favorite movies, “The Sound of Music,” just start at the very beginning; it’s a very good place to start. For apparel, footwear, accessory and hardgoods manufacturers, that generally means materials. Many companies don’t have an internal product or materials innovation team to develop sustainable materials on their own, so why not piggyback on other companies and the materials they’ve developed for commercial use?

Sustainable materials can be classified in a variety of ways, but for this article, I’ll use the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s (CFDA) cataloging system to separate discrete material types: animal leather and leather alternatives, manufactured fibers from plants, manufactured synthetic materials, natural fibers from animals, natural fibers from plants and other materials.

The CFDA’s website provides a list of sustainable materials and suppliers, which is a great site to start researching materials for your product design and development teams.

As with most high-quality materials, you may expect to pay a premium for recycled, recyclable, sustainable or renewable substances. This is usually the first stumbling block on the path to sustainability. However, once you’ve narrowed down your focus to the sustainable materials of your choice, you may find you’re able to work with the various vendors to negotiate a better price.

The next step on your sustainability path may be looking at how you’re designing your products. We’re all aware of how a product is constructed, but how many of us are paying attention to how a product is broken down once it has outlived its purpose? Creating sustainable products means there needs to be a way to recycle, repurpose or degrade materials once they’re no longer in use. Pay attention to how much effort it takes and how much waste is created once a product is deconstructed. Can those materials be used again? How much will wind up in landfill, and how much can be re-used?

When thinking about construction, think about all of the parts and pieces or trims that go into making a product, not just the material. Can you use recycled nylon zippers or buttons? Recycled fiber labels? Recycled metal snaps, rivets, grommets, hooks or buckles? Special emphasis should be placed on packaging as well. We can’t control retailers’ demands for plastic bags, hangers and multiple paper tags, but we can look for smarter solutions with less of an environmental impact, such as recycled cardboard boxes and compostable packaging. Maybe one day we’ll even get retailers on board.

A client of mine, half-jokingly, said, “Why do we have to use any packaging at all?” Good question. Until we can find a way to get product from a factory to a retailer or consumer in perfect condition without using any packaging, we’re going to have to get creative and find more sustainable supply chain options.

Beyond finding sustainable materials, the next step is creating sustainable manufacturing practices — ones that reduce the use of water, energy and chemicals. They also need to create a humane working environment in the factories.

I remember the first time I stepped foot in a footwear factory. I was astonished at the amount of chemicals used in assembling the shoes, from adhesives to seals to dyes, finishes and more. No matter how careful factory workers may be, I can’t imagine how many chemicals they might ingest on a daily basis. Do your research when looking for a manufacturing partner. More and more factories are looking to create sustainable manufacturing practices, reduce waste, reduce water usage and eliminate toxins from their plants. Larger brands are partnering with suppliers to create new, state-of-the-art factories which incorporate sustainable practices. Capacity at those types of factories may be available. Work with your supply chain leader or agents to create partnerships in sustainable factories.

There are many steps to take on the path to sustainability, but when broken down into smaller pieces, the process isn’t as daunting. Resources are available, and many other companies who have pioneered their sustainable practices are willing and eager to share their journeys with you. In the race to sustainability, we all win.

Jill Mazur is an independent business process and technology consultant based in Los Angeles, California. She can be reached at jillmazur@yahoo.com.

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