Green Still Seen As Just
One More (Unnecessary) Cost
By Ernest Kao
Many mills are slowly losing interest in sustainability, in part because the concept has become too expensive and too vague.
“We are not seeing much progress [in sustainability] because there are no incentives to improve,” said K.P Wong, manager at Tai Hing Cotton Mill. “Any talk about green means increasing costs but at the moment everyone is facing difficulties trying to reduce costs, and of course prices.”
Upstream suppliers working on hair thin margins often don’t have much choice. Buyers are demanding more sustainable manufacturing processes to meet requirements from their retail customers. There are three key problems impeding the proliferation of more sustainable practices within the textile industry. To begin with, nobody is prepared to pay.
Bing Cheung, managing director of San Yang Textile Hong Kong said he had enough on his plate right now without having to think about anything else. “Sustainability is not a main concern for us right now, mainly because we do fine count cotton yarns which can’t incorporate materials like recycled or organic cotton, but also because commodity prices are increasing while yarn/fabric prices are declining…margins are really getting squeezed I don’t know how it will play out in the future but I have to find ways of surviving this year first,” he said.
What Does Green Really Mean?
Secondly, merchandisers themselves do not know or don’t want to know what sustainability is and are reluctant to do anything serious about it other than requesting the standard testing certifications or “green labeling”.
“For most retailers, ‘green’ and novelty are just window dressing.”
The manipulation of green labeling was seen at the July Hong Kong Fashion Week. Select exhibitors had special “green solutions provider” signage placed at the top of their booths. When asked about the sign, Isaac Abittan, of knitwear manufacturer New Point Enterprises, told Inside Fashion that he didn’t really know, nor was he interested. He said the sign was given to his company simply because they tested their products for harmful substances.
“To be honest, it’s all hype,” said Mr. Abittan. “Even if customers are willing to pay for this stuff, we really need to start asking if it’s actually better?”
Allen Chan of Bluefarm Textiles agreed, saying that customers were increasingly asking, “What’s the point of paying more for [sustainable textiles]?” His company offers a range of eco-friendly fabrics but he admitted, “For most retailers, ‘green’ and novelty are just window dressing.”
“Mills do not care too much about sustainability right now, a least not at my mill,” said Raymond Lau, director of Mou Fung Textiles. “My opinion is that it’s usually just some new standard or label which companies are driving as a marketing scheme to boost profits and attract customers. Merchandisers rarely know what sustainability really means.”
Organic and Recycled Challenges
Skeptics say there is a big disconnect between the marketing of “sustainable” products and their actual benefits.
“Organic doesn’t even necessarily equate with ‘good’, in some cases it might actually be worse. Look at what happened to the vegetables in Europe recently (referring to the spate of E.Coli tainted vegetables in Germany),” said Mr. Lau.
“At a time where organic cotton costs 10 percent more but buyers are only willing to pay 10 percent less, it is clearly a business model which doesn’t work,” said a managing director from a large buying office who requested not to be named.
"We don’t see sustainability as a long term thing for us,” said Frank Shi of Luthai Textiles Hong Kong. “Sustainable fabrics don’t generate much profit for us. Our buyers haven't been asking for it because it costs too much. Organic cotton nowadays is in short supply but at high prices, especially since they can’t use chemicals and fertilizers to increase yields…its difficult for us to implement sustainability in our business.”
Widespread talk about recycled fabrics doesn’t do sustainability much justice either. For many, recycled cotton “blends” have become a convenient excuse for cutting raw material costs in light of rapidly rising cotton and polyester prices.
Many ignore the fact that re-using a material actually affects the fiber’s strength. “Products using recycled yarns tend to be inferior in performance and are of lesser quality,” said Mr. Wong.
The Drive for Sustainability is Not Dead
Pat-Nie Woo, director of Central Textiles, understands where mills are coming from. Sure, commodities prices may be going up and, yes, sustainability costs a premium. However, Mr. Woo, who is also chairman of Hong Kong’s Sustainable Fashion Business Consortium (SFBC), believes that it is really a matter of “perspective and focus.”
“Currently, the marketplace is too fragmented for people to focus on sustainability. Most do not know what it means beyond organic cotton and recycled polyester, which are more expensive and people are not willing to pay for it,” said Mr. Woo. “But ‘expensive’ is always relative. Cotton went up to $2.00/lb and people still bought it, but when organic cotton was $0.80/lb people could not afford it.”
The problem is that sustainability is still too ambiguous a concept. The key, according to Mr. Woo, is for retailers, manufacturers and mills to develop a common definition and standards for sustainability.
Inroads have been made through the development of entities such as the Eco Index and now the Sustainable Apparel Coalition Index. Through these indexes, industry leaders will start to understand what constitutes the environmental footprint of a product, including the carbon content, water, chemicals, raw materials as well as the facilities they are produced in.
“Sustainability is good business practice, not just a fad,” said Simon Weston, vice-president, regional business, at Fountain Set Limited, a producer of circular knitted fabrics and a member of the SFBC. “Sustainable fabrics are a product of sustainable business and cannot be seen as separate. Providing sustainable solutions is a business-wide initiative and shouldn’t be more expensive for a company when looked at as a whole.”
“If you have the conviction that resource prices will be on the rise going forward, it would be wise to prepare yourself. When you think of sustainability as an investment rather than a cost, you are investing in the future of your company,” said Mr. Woo.
Finding ways to reducing fabric wastage of the mill floor, introducing more efficient power usage, better waste water treatment systems are all examples of improving the overall sustainability of the business operations. Products that are sustainable are merely byproducts of good business practice.
“We have not felt much pressure from our brand customers yet, but they are becoming more aware of this topic,” said Mr. Woo. “Rather, we would like to work with our customers to devise a long term plan going forward to meet their sustainability goals, beyond just this season, beyond just this year, but on a longer term basis.”
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