What Does Sustainability Mean To a Garment Technologist?

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Last month Ethical Fashion Forum launched a new series looking at what sustainability means to different job roles within the fashion industry. In this first instalment, read from three garment technologists, from niche to high street brands about what they do.

Garment technology is an exciting role because it involves so many different areas of the business, linking the supply chain right through to the retailers and end customers. It’s also quite a creative role, responsible for developing fabrics that can deliver the design team’s vision as well as suit customers’ wants and needs.

Here, we get insights from two people working for a well-known British high street brand (doing more than £550 million in annual sales) and Ruth Valiant, from the popular Fair Trade fashion label, People Tree.

What do garment technologists do?

Garment technologists are tasked with working with suppliers both at home and overseas to develop products to a certain specification, this may involve travelling to visit factories and working closely with colleagues based in producing countries.

As the Head of Technical, this role might also entail aligning the brand and technical strategy. This role will need to deliver on the the brand’s long-term (eg. 3 year) and seasonal plans, trying to keep the technical aspects of product development cost effective as much as possible. This role is also responsible for managing a team of product technologists, freelancers and other support staff – one of our interviewees manages a team of 22.

For Ruth at People Tree, her role as Garment Technologist also entails a lot of training: “Some of our producers started as handicraft producers so I have been involved a lot in capacity building. We hold workshops in Bangladesh where all producers get together to learn new procedures and share their experiences.”

How do garment technologists view sustainability?

Sustainability and ethical issues are particularly relevant to garment technologists as they work most closely with suppliers and factories. This role has significant influence in choosing suppliers that respect workers rights and the environment. Though garment techs also need to balance these concerns with commercials goals and this can sometimes prove to be a huge challenge.

In the well-known high street brand, mapping the supply chain helps them to tackle some ethical issues. This means they can understand where products are coming from, who exactly is making them and that they’re always working with approved factories (rather than secret sub-contractors). The company aims to move further down the tiers of their supply chain, mapping not only the cut-make-and-trim factories but also the fabrics and inputs too.

It helps when social and environmental values are built into the brand’s DNA. Even at the high street retailer, the garment techs we spoke to believed this was important. In fact it is part of the job interview process and new employee induction process. Job applicants are asked about their values and reasons for working at the brand, and those who have a social mission are deemed a better fit.

The garment technologists we interviewed from the high street believe that sustainability is about custodianship of both product and the supply chain. It requires having the right knowledge and operating with a conscience. The challenge is how to maintain ethics and still deliver commercially.

For Ruth at People Tree, it’s obvious that social and environmental issues are at the heart of everything they do. People Tree was the first ever Fair Trade certified fashion label and today the brand is one of the most recognised ethical fashion pioneers.

Those who work at People Tree do so in part because of how much they believe that sustainability and ethics are important for the fashion industry.

Ruth explains: “Sustainability to me is about the whole supply chain, from sourcing the yarn to sending production by sea shipment. You need to build up a good relationship with all your suppliers so that they understand the importance of what you are trying to achieve and are like-minded in their approach.”

People Tree x Zandra Rhodes modelled by brand ambassador Rebecca Pearson

How do garment technologists tackle social and environmental issues in their day-to-day role?

Ruth’s role as garment technologist is comprehensive, starting from the very beginning of the supply chain: “We work with the cotton growers to decide what count of yarn we require before it is even planted so that they can guarantee sales to the farmers. We look at using natural trims such as buttons made in coconut, corozo, shell and horn. Handcrafted skills are sustainable as they only use man power, of which there is so much need of in the countries we work in.” People Tree takes a truly holistic view on its practices and how social and environmental impacts are considered with each step.

The high street brand takes a strategy more focused on compliance according to the Ethical Trading Initiative standards, which sets out minimum requirements relating to working conditions, pay and employment rights. This involves regular visits to factories and other production facilities. It also involves working with external auditors and some unannounced visits with the aim of capturing an honest picture of suppliers’ day-to-day practices.

The team works closely in partnership with its factories and suppliers to solve any difficult issues that do arise. The company offers its suppliers support and solutions to change non-compliant practices wherever possible, and if that doesn’t work, they stop working with that particular supplier. These are issues that would have a significant impact on the garment technologist’s day-to-day tasks.

In this company’s particular experience, the better a supplier is on social and environmental issues, the better they tend to be on delivering high-quality work with much less rejections. So in fact, it’s better for their bottom line in the medium to long-term.

People Tree follows the 10 principles of the World Fair Trade Foundation and works with suppliers who do as well.

People Tree

Focus on fabrics

It’s not just about relationships with suppliers, product technologists are also the ones who focus most on the technical aspects of the fabrics.

At People Tree, Ruth tells us: “It is the core of our mission to research and choose natural processes, fabrics and trims that are GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certified. We also work with hand woven and hand dyed fabrics in Bangladesh, alongside other traditional skills such as hand knitting in Nepal and hand embroidery in Bangladesh. Due to the work by hand every piece is unique, but must pass quality and fabric testing standards.”

At the high street brand, there is a focus on using natural fibres, especially indigenous cottons from India and China. This brand is very well known for its prints and embellishments, a space in which they find that “artisan tech” is most exciting – especially tie dye and embroidery.

One of the technologists we spoke to from the high street brand also said she loves working with silk and yarn-dyed cloths because of “the hand feel and appearance of silk is so rich and yarn dyes can be very textural and creative.”

Ruth from People Tree agrees that “hand woven is very interesting due to the weaves and beauty of seeing a fabric made by hand, it is a skill that is dying out in many countries.”

Ruth also notes that “fabrics have developed and there are many new recycled and eco fabrics, finishes and printing techniques are developing all the time… and we look to use up any left over fabrics for accessories and use natural fabrics and trims.”

How will garment tech’s role change in future?

The role of garment technologist has changed over the last ten years thanks to globalisation. Fashion brands and retailers now source from countries all over the world. They also sell globally too. The whole value chain has become globalised.

One garment tech predicted that there will be “more of the same” way of working for a while but “ethics will come to the fore.” They do see the industry as changing. How this is reconciled with commercial goals will be interesting, especially for garment techs.

She believed that this is going to mean that retailers will have to work together – at the moment the industry is still very “cut-throat”. There may have to be some “levelling of the playing field.” This is where government will need to come in. She felt that at the policy level, there isn’t yet a clear message on these issues for fashion businesses, but a clarified political agenda would help improve the situation. Customers will also need to be more educated around these issues, helping to increase demand for ethically, sustainably made products.

People Tree works hard to inform their customers and make them aware of what People Tree is doing and what still needs to be done. Though Ruth agrees that ethics and sustainability in fashion “need to be taken on by governments and multi nationals to have a real effect… before it is too late.”

This article was written by Sarah Ditty, Editor-in-Chief and Stephanie Lau, Editorial Researcher.

**This story first appeared on Ethical Fashion Forum here.

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    […] Read the first installment What Does Sustainability Mean To a Garment Technologist? […]

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