Ask any mill what buyers are looking for and the answer is the same “sustainable fabrics.” Still, the sales of these materials accounts for as little as 5% of mills’ sales. Price remains the biggest obstacle. Materials represent the biggest cost factor for apparel and in a hyper competitive market that input will be controlled down to the last cent.
While almost every mill has quickly jumped onto the sustainability directive, they are finding that their investment is being met with market desire, but not dollars.
Mills are reporting that buyers are starting to spend a little more for eco-friendly fabrics, but unfortunately for mills, it’s just ‘a little’ – while investment in greening up production processes cost a lot.
“Some of the biggest players, the guys who talk the most about being sustainable, are not willing to pay more for fabric that more sustainable,” said Javed Ashraf at Sarreena (Pakistan), speaking with Inside Fashion at Kingpins New York. Kingpins has positioned itself as the international platform for sourcing sustainable denim.
However other mills are seeing some progress. “Many of the big guys are now spending extra to for eco-friendly textiles,” said Mike Heinfling at Seazon Textile (China).
“Sustainability and transparency are the two things that everyone wants,” said Mubashir Shakoor at Artistic Denim Mills (Pakistan).
“Eco-friendly has a cost – and the market right now is very competitive. Some customers need fabrics that are very price aggressive,” he said. To help those customers meet their price targets, the company offers ‘semi-sustainable’ fabrics - blends that include sustainable fibers.
“We’re using recycled cotton and other eco-friendly materials, as well as switching to laser instead of chemicals,” said James Han at Lantian Textile Co (China). “For us the focus in on innovation and quality – we can no longer try to compete on price.”
“The gimmick is to offer sustainable fabric at a low price,” said Imellda Ho at Vita Denim (Hong Kong).
It’s About the Process
“Processes are the core of sustainability. If you’re just using sustainable materials, but the process is not sustainable, then it’s counterproductive,” said Anatt Finkler at Global Denim (Mexico). Global Denim has always had sustainable process since the mill is located next to a government protected site, she said.
It’s a lot easier to change to more sustainable materials than it is to upgrade an entire factory. There’s also another issue: using less water requires using a machine that consumers more energy. For mills, it comes down to choosing the lesser of two evils: Do we save water or reduce energy consumption?
The newest buzzword is “Aniline-free indigo”, with many mills claiming to use non-aniline dyes as a key part of opting for cleaner chemistry.
Sustainability is such a comprehensive topic that a growing number of brands and retailers are realizing that ambitious goals can only be achieved by taking baby steps.
“Now the trend is to get people to take small steps in the right direction,” said Danielle Rolla at Artistic Denim Mills. “Little by little sustainability will become the norm.”
Overall, the industry is inching its way towards greater sustainability, even if NGOs and other stakeholders think that the progress is not faster enough.
Is Sustainability Enough?
While mills continue to hit higher sustainable targets another challenge facing the market is that denim, from a design point of view, has little newness. Vintage, stretch, soft hand feel… what’s new? Not a lot. Without newness, what will drive consumers to buy that next pair?