Handshake of Hope
Sustainably produced fashion apparel is chic and hip today. Eco-fashion benefits customers in stores and cotton farmers in the field. Small labels and big retailers demonstrate that money can be made with eco-fashion.
There is hardly anything that we allow to come closer to our bodies than cotton. It is the raw material for 40 percent to 50 percent of all textiles and the most used natural fiber. Compared with synthetic fibers, cotton is very absorbent, capable of absorbing up to 65 percent of its weight in water. Cotton fabrics rate as being pleasant to the skin and hypoallergenic. As good as the properties of cotton fibers are, it is problematic to produce them. The biggest problem is water consumption. World Wildlife Fund International (WWF) designates cotton a "thirsty crop" alongside rice, sugar cane and wheat. The WWF calculates that it takes more than 20,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of cotton (which yields something like one T-shirt and a pair of jeans). A remarkable amount of insecticides and pesticides are also used to grow cotton. Although cotton is cultivated on only around 2.4 percent of the world's farmland, the crop accounts for 24 percent of insecticide and 11 percent of pesticide usage worldwide. This, in turn, pollutes groundwater, posing a hazard to human health.
From Aral Sea to Salt Flat
The Aral Sea is a testament to exactly how thirsty cotton plants are. Since the middle of the 20th century, water has been diverted from rivers feeding into the Aral Sea in order to irrigate vast cotton plantations in both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Since 1960, the Aral Sea has lost some 85 percent of its surface area and more than 90 percent of its volume. Once the world's fourth-largest inland body of water, the Aral Sea is now a salt flat. All that remains of Aralskoye More, as Russians call it, are two outsized puddles. The desiccation of the Aral Sea is widely considered to be one of the worst-ever ecosystem catastrophes caused by humans.
Given these alarming facts, it's not surprising that more and more consumers and manufacturers are taking a stand for ecologically sustainable products. American fashion entrepreneur Yael Aflalo is one of them. Aflalo, a former model who is currently a fashion designer and the CEO of Reformation, a "rare hybrid of fast fashion and sustainability" (Forbes), which she founded in 2009, describes in a guest essay posted on Time.com the moment that she renounced conventional textile manufacturing: It was during a factory tour in China, where she witnessed firsthand the working and environmental conditions that prevail there. When she later learned how much water it takes to make a single T-shirt, she resolved to use sustainably produced textiles to manufacture her clothes. "We make killer clothes that don't kill the environment," proclaims her brand's tagline. Reformation generated sales revenue of USD 25 million in 2014, and its list of paying customers includes "It" girls like Taylor Swift and Rihanna. Even better, supermodel Karlie Kloss was one of the investors in the second round of financing that raised USD 12 million in April 2015.
Becoming the Market Leader with Organic Cotton
An example from Switzerland shows that sustainability in the textile sector is an important issue for major retailers too. Coop's Naturaline label has already been in existence since 1993, and it has exclusively used organic cotton since 1995. After Coop did pioneering work in the food sector in Switzerland with its Naturaplan label, it followed up by rolling out the Oecoplan brand of cleaning and hygiene products in the non-food sector. Right from the launch of Naturaline, it was clear that Coop would work together with a partner, Remei AG, which produces sustainable textiles made of organic cotton and organizes the entire process from the size chart to delivery. The alliance between the two companies was symbolically sealed with a handshake in an Indian cotton field. Tanzania was later added as a cotton supplier.
But why cotton at all? Emanuel Büchlin, the head of textile sourcing at Coop, says: "An incredible 25 million tons of cotton gets planted each year, accounting for a third of all textile fibers and 75 percent of all natural fibers. Between 70 percent and 80 percent of our products are made of cotton." This gives the company a sense of ecological and social responsibility. And why Tanzania of all places? "Tanzania is a relatively big cotton-producing country, but what's most important is that production there is 100 percent free of genetic modification. Naturaline wants to produce non-GMO clothing. We have cotton from India and Tanzania that is grown and processed in accordance with the bioRe sustainability standard. The genetic engineering issue is gradually becoming a problem in India because well over 97 percent of the cotton cultivated there is genetically modified." In contrast to conventional cotton production, crops are rotated between cotton, chili peppers and corn on the fields operated by the bioRe Foundation, from which Remei AG sources its cotton. This benefits the soil and is becoming an increasingly popular practice, Büchlin explains. Moreover, he says, Coop places importance on keeping as much of the manufacturing process as possible in the cotton's country of origin. From there product is then shipped by sea to Switzerland for final production, he adds.
Alongside ecological and economic aspects, sustainability also encompasses the social aspect, which is equally as important to Coop. Around 7000 farmers are currently employed in the Coop cotton project in the fields in India and Tanzania, a number that Büchlin proudly cites. "We put people in the foreground also in the textile value chain. That's why our textile processing is protective of worker health and of the environment. We insist on adherence to all of the core ILO norms. All producers and suppliers in the Naturaline value chain must be audited to at least Business Social Compliance Initiative standard and obtain SA8000 certification in the medium term. We have hired an external company to verify SA8000 compliance certification."
Our textile processing is protective of worker health and of the environment.
Women Lead the Way
More and more consumers are giving thought to where their food and clothing comes from and to how this affects the climate. Movements like Slow Food and veganism are prime evidence of this. And customers today are increasingly willing to pay more for equitably produced goods. Büchlin defines Naturaline's core target group as being "modern fashion-conscious women who place importance on the way in which things get made." And Coop uses a face well-known to Switzerland in its marketing. Former Miss Switzerland Melanie Winiger has been the brand ambassador for Naturaline since 2008, and since 2014 has been creating for the label "comfortable fashion apparel for people who have their own style and care about environmentally sound, equitable production." Winiger's declared goal is to guide fair-trade eco-fashion out of the "silk, wool and bast fiber corner."
When Naturaline entered the market, Coop had to subsidize the product line. Büchlin says that Coop "would not have been able to bring these items onto the market at full cost recovery. That's different nowadays. Today we are absolutely competitive. We are situated in a mid-range price category, but our ecologically and equitably produced products remain 20 percent to 25 percent more expensive." Büchlin still sees growth potential for Naturaline in Switzerland. Naturaline products currently generate around 60 million Swiss francs of annual sales revenue, but Coop plans to boost that to 100 million by 2020 by internationalizing the Naturaline product range in collaboration with Remei AG. A look at the Naturaline strategy through 2025 reveals that Coop also continues to emphasize cotton, though it definitely sees potential for cotton blends with modal and other rayon fibers. An additional line with certified organic silk has already been launched.
What can other industries learn from the fashion apparel and textile sector when it comes to sustainability? Resource-conserving processes, human rights and worker satisfaction stand in the foreground for Büchlin. Aflalo urges companies to view sustainability not as an added benefit, but as a standard. She thinks that smug calls for customers to forego consumption are unrealistic. It is businesses' job to meet the demands of sustainability, in her view.