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Cross-Industry Perspective

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Every industry these days is focused on advancing its corporate sustainability platform, and central to these programs is how to shape a circular supply chain, from materials made from renewable resources to developing sustainable end of life solutions. Despite playing in different markets and unique distribution channels, executives across the board are examining how to lower environmental impacts and achieve ecological goals in ways that benefit corporate profits and the planet. Whether it’s a bedding business, a battery specialist or a thought leader on climate change and food, crossover exists in challenges faced navigating a greener future.

“One of our larger challenges is the balance between what we can actually ‘do’ and what brings the most positive impact. We have a range of top of mind issues including foam, microplastics in the ocean, and carbon footprint. Where to begin and what to tackle is the first task,” states Kevin Dixon, VP Innovation at Standard Fiber, a global supplier to the bedding and home textile industries. “We already work in certified programs such as GOTS, OCS, RCS, and GRS; We now need to find what items we control where we can make an impact, both short term and long term.”  

Michael Hoffman, a Cornell University professor emeritus, observes, “What’s happening in food has a crossover impact in plant-based textiles.”

Celgard’s director, research & development, Ron Smith says his company’s “green approach” sparked an opportunity in the functional membrane category. “It’s about designing for innovation – having the lowest possible impact for maximum circulatory.”

Home Textiles Perspective

A range of factors hinder sustainability advancement within the home textile business. However, Dixon and colleague Chad Altbaier, chief commercial officer, at Standard Fiber, are moving the needle in a green direction as the company prepares its first corporate eco-responsibility initiative. Price, recycling and supply chain logistics continue to present challenges but solid strategies are taking shape and opportunities, like biodegradable packaging, show potential.  

Consider pricing: Tacking on a cost increase by using eco-responsible materials is especially tricky. Dixon explains: “Innovation in apparel extends over a product yield of maybe 1.5-2.5 meters at a 65cm width. For home textiles, that same innovation extends over a yield of six meters at a 200cm width. So the price impact per item is quite significant for home textiles making price point a major challenge.”

“One of our larger challenges is the balance between what we can actually ‘do’ and what brings the most positive impact.” – Kevin Dixon, Standard Fiber

Recycling is not easy, either. “Not only is the average sheet and comforter more material than a jacket or shirt, it’s bulkier so it takes more to recycle,” Altbaier comments. There are also a number of disparate materials to deal with and a supply chain for recycling these textiles doesn’t exist in scale.

Lacking, too, is a sustainability council dedicated to home textiles to serve as a playbook, something akin to the Higg Index and SAC for the apparel industry. “Looking toward apparel, we find some direction toward crafting our approach,” says Dixon. “Patagonia is blazing a path that I think we can draft in behind a little more closely.”

Adds Altbaier, “What it’s really about is our ability to develop and create a sustainable tool that equips our customers and brands we serve.”

Newcomer Perspective

A year ago, Helly Hansen took home an ISPO Gold Award for it’s mono-material featuring polypropylene, an innovative, sustainable alternative to conventional performance apparel membrane. The technology requires no chemical treatments to add waterproofness, and debuted in Helly’s Odin Infinity Insulated Jacket.The kicker is that this innovation came from Celgard, a subsidiary of Asahi Kasei, a global leader in the development and production of high-performance membrane separator technology.

“We are highly focused on batteries, so in the beginning the goal was to do something new but not within the same space.” — Ron Smith, Celgard

“As a newcomer to this space, we hear different needs and requirements and how to target our product. What works, and what’s not working,” shares Ron Smith, director, research & development, at Celgard. “We are highly focused on batteries, so in the beginning the goal was to do something new but not within the same space. We saw different segments in the market and looked for opportunities to take our materials and start targeting new sectors, both in the way we deliver, the design, and how we service.”

When Celgard became interested in textiles, they found a partner in Helly Hansen. “To Helly Hansen’s credit, they, too, were looking for change,” states Smith, who participated in a panel discussion on innovation at the Functional Fabric Fair in Portland, OR. “Innovation comes from the very beginning. It’s the ability to think from the beginning how something comes together at the end and how best to apply a technology.”

Food/Climate Perspective

Michael Hoffman uses an example of a bathtub about to overflow to explain the challenge of rising greenhouse gas emissions and escalating rate of climate change. He states, “You’ve got a faucet with GHG streaming into the tub and there’s a drain. We’ve turned the faucet way up so fast the natural processes can’t keep pace, so the bathtub is filling up.” He continues, “The scale of change is unprecedented. And it’s going to get worse. Right now the goal is to stabilize the climate. We are not going to turn it around.”

Hoffmann is co-author of Our Changing Menu: Climate Change and the Foods We Love and Need, a book that highlights issues that directly overlap with the material world. In a recent keynote address Hoffmann connects the dots between climate, food and plant-based textiles. Indeed the entire supply chain, from farm to finished product is impacted by weather extremes resulting in challenges and offsetting crops for food and fiber.

Hoffmann points out obvious and subtle climate behaviors that are affecting textiles. For example, winters are warming twice as fast as summer and arid land areas are getting dryer and wet areas getting wetter. He forecasts competition for water heating up, and oceans rising in places that are textile production hubs.

“The scale of change is unprecedented. And it’s going to get worse. Right now the goal is to stabilize the climate. We are not going to turn it around.” — Michael Hoffmann, author, Cornell University professor emeritus

“Look around the world, where raw product comes from, in most cases it is going to get dryer. In Texas where cotton grows in the panhandle, the majority is irrigated, and it could run out of water,” says Hoffmann, suggesting that these factors may shift where cotton is grown in the future.

Silk is also subject to change. Hoffmann explains, “The mulberry plant will be affected as rainfall increases, yield will drop, and quality will decline.” Further, like plants, animals such as sheep grown for wool, will also experience more stress from weather extremes.

Hoffmann believes “the ingenuity of the farmer and rancher is critical” in many of these situations. In other words, climate-smart science farming, a solution increasingly endorsed by textile communities in support of regenerative agriculture.

Climate change also isn’t going to make things better for our supply chain and will likely impact where factories are built in the future. Hoffmann notes escalation in transport “choke points” due to rising rivers, melting ice caps and other weather-related disruptions. Of particular concern to the textile industry is predictive sea level rise in areas of China, Bangladesh and Ho Chi Ming city. Based on current trends, “In 10 years, 55 percent of apparel factories in Ho Chi Ming will be affected,” Hoffmann reports.

He concludes, “When we talk about climate change it has to be relevant. Like food, apparel is especially relevant to everyone, and the changes that are occurring can be used to raise awareness and action on climate change.”

Confronting these challenges is not a solo endeavor. Be it climate, textile recycling or focusing on planet-positive fabrics, gaining insight from outside industries can be a proactive and productive pathway to change. l

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Jan 24, 2022

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