Yoga Pants, Fleece Jackets and the Microplastics Dilemma

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Nodules of polystyrene under the microscope and in polarized light. Image courtesy: Shuttershock

In December 2015, President Obama signed the Microbeads Free Waters Act, banning the use of plastic microbeads used as exfoliants in personal care products. As a previous director of the organization that first helped uncover this issue, I continue to be astonished by the massive amounts of plastic pollution that originate from a seemingly innocent act: washing our collective faces.

Winning on microbeads took a huge, national coalition of NGOs with a united strategic plan. The next iteration of that work has a new target: microfibers that come from washing synthetic clothing in washing machines.

Oceanic gyres tend to eviscerate big plastics into smaller bits, and washing machines do the same — and even more efficiently. When you wash clothing made from synthetic materials such as polyester, tiny particles of plastic called microfibers are washed down the drain with the washing machine effluent. Microfiber pollution is one of the biggest sources of primary microplastic pollution. In a recent International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) report, washing clothing was found to be responsible for 33 percent of primary microplastic releases into the environment. Compare that to the effect of microbeads, which were banned for their paltry 2 percent contribution to watershed microplastic pollution.

For clothing brands, microfiber pollution represents an existential threat to their bottom line, and for outdoor companies, their pro-environment reputations.

Why? Because fossil-fuel-derived, plastic textiles are becoming the go-to fabric of choice for sports and active lifestyle brands due to their performance attributes. Already, 60 percent of all clothing on earth is made of polyester, with even higher occurrences in activewear brands. But whether it’s yoga pants, fleece jackets or underwear, plastic clothes are the new normal — and are shedding massive amounts of persistent plastic pollutants into our shared waters and soil. Unfortunately, with increasing demand for synthetic fabrics, the problem is at risk of getting even worse.

To give an idea of scale, it’s estimated more than 1.4 million trillion fibers are awash in the ocean, a number derived by George Leonard, chief scientist for the Ocean Conservancy, based on an extrapolation from existing data. Now, consider that government data shows more than 103 million washing machines are in the United States doing an average of eight to 10 loads of laundry per week. According to the scientific literature, each load can release between 1,900 fibers per load, to as many as 250,000 per fleece jacket, per wash.

Microfibers are a huge source of pollution, but are they dangerous?

It’s seriously doubtful we’re going to see a scientific study that demonstrates that animals eating plastic is a good thing. As such, many scientists agree there is cause for alarm and that a solution must be found.

What we do know is that plankton, mussels and clams eat fibers and can cause gut impaction and other serious digestive tract problems. We know one in four fish procured from a fish market in California has evidence of microfiber ingestion. We also know microfibers will attract and concentrate (up to a million times greater toxicity) other chemical pollutants present in water, and that after ingestion these toxins can leach from the plastic into an organism’s tissues. Some clothing is also treated with dangerous chemicals that will desorb into water over time as well.

So, although we don’t know the ultimate human health connection implications yet from eating sea life, we know that larger organisms eat smaller ones, and that pollutants thus magnify up the food chain.

So what are clothing brands doing about it?

Forward-thinking brands have acknowledged microfiber pollution is real, and apparel company Patagonia has commissioned a study to look at their products’ contributions to the problem. But few brands have made any significant progress on mitigating their products’ impact on the environment.

In the six years since the first seminal study demonstrating microfiber pollution was published, no clothing company has abandoned synthetic fibers for use in their products. Instead, we’ve seen an increased use of synthetic textiles, especially polyester. Brands love polyester and other synthetics for their performance attributes: they repel water, wick sweat, and the fabric stretches without getting stretched out. Although cheap to produce, polyester is twice as carbon-intensive than the next most carbon-intensive material, cotton.

Some brands, recognizing a way to solve the carbon problem, thought making clothing out of recycled plastic water and soda bottles would be a good idea. This became an overall trend for “green activewear” brands to tell a sustainability story. Although these efforts are well-intentioned, the effect on water and soil remains the same with regard to microfiber pollution.

As is often the case with so many environmental problems, the first solutions are ones that encourage individual actions and technical quick fixes over more complicated, systemic interventions. Although we at The Story of Stuff Project absolutely appreciate innovation and individuals’ desire to “do good” in the world, we’ve been in the environmental advocacy sphere long enough to be skeptical of “sexy” tech fixes that attempt to frame an issue as being solved “if we all just do our part.”

Does anyone really think retrofitting 103 million washing machines in the United States alone is practical? Here are my thoughts on some solutions proposed so far:

  • Wash your synthetic clothes less. We have to clean clothes eventually, which seems to indicate that clothing brands are still OK with some amount of fibers going into the environment. This strategy doesn’t address the systemic problem and places the burden on the consumer.
  • Put a filter in a washing machine. Again, this is the clothing industry looking for another industry to solve its problem. Technically, it’s difficult to put a filter inside a washing machine because the fibers it catches are so fine they end up stopping the machine from draining properly. This observation comes directly from the mouths of product developers at General Electric, with whom I’ve spoken at length.
  • Put a filter outside of the washing machine. This could work, but how on earth would you ever enforce it? This task seems just as hard as campaigning against all textile manufacturers, and again, it puts the burden on the public, not the producer.
  • Use a filter bag inside the machine. Recently, there has been a lot in the press around the Guppy Friend, a bag designed to stop microfiber solution by washing synthetic fabrics within the bag. This is a pretty cool stop-gap measure that allows citizens to “do something.” I’d like this better if industry was subsidizing the cost of the bag and giving it away at point of purchase, rather than “hoping” people will buy them.
  • Put a fiber collector or innovative detergent in the machine. This may have some promise, but again, how could anyone enforce this? Maybe a detergent could be invented that works as a coagulating agent that grabs all the fibers and leaves a ball of fibers at the end of a cycle. I’m spitballing, but if such a thing could be invented, you’d have to legislate that all detergent sold does this — and we’d need clothing companies to pay for the R&D that creates the product and support the legislative battle to pass the policy. Judging by how hard plastic-microbeads-loving companies fought common sense legislation, this would be very difficult to achieve.
  • Stop using synthetic fabrics. There are fabrics from natural sources that could be used more widely — bamboo, for example, can be spun into fabric in a closed loop system (where chemicals used to break down the cellulosic fiber into a usable form are captured, re-used and never enter the environment). Bamboo has a lot of pluses, and also has many of the performance attributes that polyester does.
  • Update all developed country sewage treatment to tertiary filtration with the final effluent treated by cloth filters before it’s discharged. Yes, this ultimately could stop fibers from getting into watersheds but it would require billions of dollars of infrastructure spending, and it raises other issues, such as what to do about biosolids. The only way to make this work equitably would be to pass laws that require clothing manufacturers to pay a portion of their revenue, based on size, to a fund the updates the treatment process and offset the loss of revenue derived from selling fertilizers. There are several jurisdictional barriers to work through, but what concerns me most is that eventually, a litigation-oriented nonprofit likely will sue wastewater agencies for discharging plastic fibers in violation of the Clean Water Act or some other nuanced legal theory.
  • Coat textiles with a treatment that prevents shedding. This is an interesting idea some clothing brands are assessing. Many questions remain, namely: How long would a coating last? Is the coating environmentally benign? However difficult, this is the solution I like the most so far, because it puts the burden of solving the pollution problem on the front end and on the industry responsible for creating the problem in the first place.

It’s clear that many concerned companies examining the microplastics problem associated with clothes are still in the “head scratching” phase. No clothing brand intended for their synthetic products to be discharged into the environment. Now that they know, they must step up and tackle the problem. As advocates and concerned citizens, we must work hard to listen to the brands but also to guide their proposed solutions and push for systemic fixes.

*This story first appeared on GreenBiz

Is this a Greener approach to laundry? Ask Hilton and Hyatt

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Xeros’ innovative polymer beads extract dirt from linens and uniforms, using far less water than conventional washing methods.

Federal data estimates that hotels and other hospitality businesses guzzle about 15 percent of the water used commercially (PDF) every year in the United States. The laundries they run to keep guest linens fresh are among the top three consumers — after private and public bathrooms and alongside landscape irrigation.

But an 11-year-old British-born technology firm called Xeros is helping early adopters wring millions of gallons out of water out of their operations — essentially by reverse-engineering and mimicking the fabric-dying process. Xeros machines have been shown to use far less water than conventional high-capacity washing machines — in some cases about a half-gallon per pound of fabric, compared with the more than three gallons per pound that traditional equipment can use, according to the company’s data.

At the Stanford Park Hotel, a boutique property in Northern California with 162 guest rooms, that translated into more than 1 million gallons of water saved in one year. (For those who love numerical comparisons, 1 million gallons is about the same amount needed to fill 20,000 bathtubs.) Other customers, including several Hilton, Hampton Inn and Hyatt locations, also have surpassed that milestone. “Our adoption is starting to come from repeat customers. … That gets you past the new company syndrome,” said Joe Bazzinotti, president of the global commercial laundry operation for Xeros, which makes its U.S. base in Manchester, New Hampshire.

How does the technology work? Xeros uses recyclable polymer beads that, when combined with its detergent, become ionized so that they pull dirt and stains away from the fabric. Rather than filling the entire drum with water, the “extractor” adds it gradually and continually  like the difference between taking a showing and soaking in a bath tub. The dirt is released along with the water into the hotel’s conventional drainage systems, but the beads are captured separately after each cycle, recharged and then reused. The company’s systems currently come in 35-pound and 90-pound models.

“We found that it’s cost-effective, and we’re saving a lot of water,” said Chris Busbin, director of engineering for the Stanford Park Hotel. It has also cut the energy associated with this process in half, because it doesn’t need to heat or cool the water. The property currently uses two machines, which it leases from Xeros along with the detergent and a monthly maintenance visit. Sensors on the systems keep track of how much water each system uses and how many cycles have been run. (Xeros put together an “as-a-service” program to help hotels and other hospitality organizations make the switch.)

“Our sweet spot is definitely hotels,” said Bazzinotti, pointing to installations in the U.S., U.K., Canada and the Caribbean. Another niche market that you’ll see the company more exploit in years to come: industrial laundries and dry-cleaning businesses.

Closing the loop

One thing that the Stanford Park Hotel operations staff examined closely before starting to use Xeros machines about 18 months ago was how often the polymer beads can be used before they must be replaced — and what happens to them afterward. They didn’t want to make progress in water conservation in exchange for releasing harmful substances into the environment. Right now, its beads are recycled quarterly for this particular location, which is a common metric, according to Xeros executives.

David Kaupp, vice president of global marketing for Xeros, said the company uses conventional polymer recycling partners to manage end-of-life beads. “We knew this would be of concern to everyone,” he said. That’s one reason Xeros opted for its model of delivering its machines as a service — so it can better control where the beads wind up.

The company also partnered with chemicals giant BASF back in 2013 to maximize the cleansing properties of its polymer while ensuring they still can be recycled relatively easily.

“On the one side, as a globally active chemical company, we can support Xeros through our global network and the worldwide availability of our materials,” said BASF business development executive Matthias Dietrich when the deal was announced. “On the other side, we can make use of our strong research and development base, which can provide tailor-made plastics with specific combinations of properties.”

While the Xeros executives declined to disclose the company’s total customer count, its financial results published in September (PDF) pegged the total number of machines installed at just under 300. In that same report, the company’s CEO forecasts that Xeros will be installing about 2,000 systems annually by 2020; that could include a licensing deal with a “global OEM.”

It’s also working on adapting its technology for use in leather tanneries, and the financial report also hints at consumer applications.

*This story first appeared on GreenBiz

Nike and Levi’s pile on for ‘fast fashion’ culture reform

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Shutterstock luanateutzi Even clothing industry executives say it’s time to end the wasteful clothing culture and begin making new apparel out of old items on a large scale.

Fast-growing, fast-fashion retailer H&M, which has more than 4,000 stores in 62 countries, sold $24.5 billion worth of T-shirts, pants, jackets and dresses last year. It also took 12,000 tons of clothes back. In a glossy, celebrity-studded video, H&M says: “There are no rules in fashion but one: Recycle your clothes.”

Recycling has become a rallying cry in the apparel industry, with H&M as its most vocal evangelist. The Swedish firm launched a €1 million contest to seek out ideas for turning old clothes into new, invested in Worn Again, a company developing textile recycling technology, and enlisted hip-hop artist M.I.A. to produce a music video called Rewear It that aims to “highlight the importance of garment collecting and recycling.”

Don’t miss The Circular Economy Gets Down to Business with Ellen MacArthur of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Cyrus Wadia of Nike and Kate Brandt of Google on Sept. 20 at VERGE 16.

With Nike, H&M is a global partner of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, whose mission is to drive a transition to a circular economy — an industrial system in which everything at the end of its life is made into something new, in contrast to today’s economy, where most consumer goods are produced, used and then thrown away.

“We have to change how fashion is made,” Karl-Johan Persson, chief executive officer of H&M, has said. “We have to go from a linear model to a circular model and we have to do it at scale.”

It’s not just H&M. American Eagle Outfitters, Eileen Fisher, Levi-Strauss & Co., Nike, the North Face, Patagonia and Zara all collect old garments (or shoes, in the case of Nike) in their stores, in some cases taking clothes from any manufacturer. Startups Ambercycle, Dutch Awareness and Evrnu are developing chemical processes to take cotton, polyester or blended apparel and transform them into new fibers. “Our ultimate goal is to harvest our raw materials from our consumers’ closets,” said Michael Kobori, vice president of sustainability at Levi Strauss.

That H&M is leading the charge for the circular economy is no small irony. The company’s low-cost clothes — it sells women’s T-shirts for $5.99 and boys’ jeans for $9.99 — are one reason why the apparel industry is growing so fast and drawing fire from environmental activists.

It’s been estimated that the global apparel industry generates as much as $2.5 trillion in annual revenue and that it will double in the next decade. What’s more, despite efforts to collect old clothes by retailers and nonprofits such as Goodwill Industries, the overwhelming majority of items eventually wind up in landfills, at least in the U.S. Americans dispose of about 12.8 million tons of textiles annually, which amounts to about 80 pounds for each man, woman and child, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated.

Eileen Fisher, the founder of the apparel company that bears her name, has called the clothing industry “the second largest polluter in the world, second only to oil,” a claim that can’t be verified because reliable data on fashion’s global footprint is scarce. But there’s no doubt that vast amounts of water, energy and chemicals are required to manufacture clothes — up to 200 tons of water, for example, to make a ton of fabric, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. In places where environmental regulation is lax, chemicals are routinely discharged into rivers and streams without treatment. The textile industry long has been one of China’s biggest polluters, and it has fouled rivers and ruined farmland in India, Cambodia and Bangladesh, as well.

Growing cotton, the most-used fabric in fashion, requires water and agricultural chemicals. (Organic cotton is an exception.) While cotton is grown on just 2.4 percent of the world’s cropland, it accounts for 24 percent and 11 percent of global sales of insecticides and pesticides, respectively, according to the World Wildlife Fund. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition — an alliance of retailers, brands and nonprofits — has been working for about five years to measure and reform the industry’s environmental footprint.

In the long run, the industry will need to take more radical action, particularly if it wants to sustain current growth rates, sustainability executives say.

For Nike to achieve its “moonshot ambition” of cutting its environmental impact by half while doubling its business, the company “will need to forget the linear and move to a circular model,” said Hannah Jones, the company’s chief sustainability officer. “Incrementalism and efficiency measures will not get us there.” Anna Gedda, H&M’s head of sustainability, said the company wants to “decouple growth from resource use, so that economic and social development can happen, but within planetary boundaries.”

This will be a daunting task. Consumer behavior is one obstacle. Most people don’t bring their old clothes back to stores, despite incentives. In the U.S., H&M, Levi-Strauss and the North Face have offered a variety of discounts, sometimes for as much as 20 percent on future purchases, but they are collecting far fewer clothes than they sell, executives admit. (H&M won’t say how many tons of clothes it sells, but the 12,000 tons it took back in 2015 is clearly a fraction of what the chain sold.) San Francisco is one of very few cities to offer curbside recycling of textiles.

Some insiders say the hype about closing the loop in fashion is outpacing actual progress. John Mowbray, founder of MCL Global, a media company focused on textiles that last year published a 100-page report called Closing the Loop, said: “There’s a hell of a long way to go for the industry to get to meaningful scale, despite what the marketing people are saying.”

To see why the job ahead is so hard, it’s essential to distinguish between recycling and closing the loop. Conventional recycling of clothes doesn’t create feedstock for new clothes. Instead, garments that can be worn again are sold in thrift stores or bundled for overseas bulk sales at just a few pennies a pound. (Even at those rock-bottom prices, the U.S. exported $705 million of worn clothing last year, sometimes to the detriment of local economies.) Clothes that can’t be worn again are resold as rags; downcycled for use in products such as insulation, carpet padding and stuffing for toys; incinerated for energy, or sent to landfills.

By contrast, a closed loop or circular economy is “restorative and regenerative by design,” stated the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. For the apparel industry, this means designing a system that will keep textile resources in use for a long as possible, and then recovering the materials at the end of life to make new high-value products. No company today is doing this on a commercial scale, but several are trying.

London-based Worn Again began “upcycling” a decade ago by turning textile waste — including discarded McDonald’s uniforms, Virgin Atlantic airplane seats and prison blankets — into clothes, shoes and bags. But founder Cyndi Rhoades soon realized that making consistent products out of a variety of materials was “a very difficult business.” She turned her attention to recycling cotton and polyester, which poses a different set of obstacles. Mechanical recycling of cotton lowers its quality as chopped-up fibers get shorter and less soft, while recycled polyester costs more than new. Harder still is recycling clothes made from a blend of fabrics, which must be separated.

After several years of research, Worn Again joined forces (PDF) with H&M and the PUMA division of Kering to develop chemical processes that will capture polyester and cotton from old textiles that have been broken down to the molecular level. Said Rhoades: “The holy grail is a process that can separate blended fibers, recapture the raw materials and reintroduce them into the supply chain at a price competitive with their virgin counterparts.” The technology has been proven in a lab, but Rhoades declined to predict when it will be deployed more widely.

A partnership between Levi Strauss and Seattle-based startup Evrnu recently brought forth the world’s first pair of jeans made of post-consumer cotton waste. A preliminary lifecycle assessment of the product generated encouraging results, according to Paul Dillinger, vice president and head of global product innovation at Levi Strauss.

“Cotton cultivation versus Evrnu, we’re looking at a 98 percent reduction in water use,” said Dillinger, noting that cotton is cultivated in places such as China, India and Pakistan that are — or soon could be — water-stressed.

Stacy Flynn, a former Target executive who is the co-founder of Evrnu, said its patented process purifies cotton garment waste, converts it to a pulp and extrudes it as a clean new fiber that is softer than silk and stronger than cotton. Evrnu expects to announce partnerships with two more retailers soon, one of which wants to make knit shirts out of textile waste. The other will focus on footwear.

Flynn said: “Our goal — and we’re not there yet — is to use no virgin product in the creation of our fiber, and create no waste.”

*This story first appeared on Greenbiz

How She Leads: Helen Sahi of Avery Dennison

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By Barbara Grady

Image: Avery Dennison
Image: Avery Dennison

The labels and price tags on retail goods all over the world are often the product of one company: Avery Dennison, a $6.3 billion global behemoth whose inventory tracking, labels and packaging are integral to sales of goods such as apparel and footwear.

The company has been honing a focus on sustainability, just last week announcing two bio-based polyethylene label films, which the company says are likely the first self-adhesive labels of their kind made from paper stock that is at least 80 percent renewable content.

In addition to boosting Avery Dennison’s own environmental goals, the labels offer consumer product manufacturers a better chance at meeting their own targets on the use of renewable resources in packaging.

The bio-based labels are also just one piece of an ambitious set of recently announced 2025 sustainability goals for the company. They include a plan to nearly eliminate waste to landfill, going 95 percent landfill free, and reuse 75 of what was once regarded as waste in new ways — a nod to growing corporate emphasis on material reuse in the push for a circular economy.

Another goal is to reduce green house gas emissions by 3 percent each year in absolute terms — by adopting the “3% Solution” developed by the World Wildlife Fund, CDP and McKinsey & Co as what business should do for the world as a whole to keep global warming below a rise of 2 degrees Celsius.

Within a decade then, Avery Dennison expects to have reduced emissions by 26 percent and will do so partly by switching to renewable energy sources in some operations.

And very important, given its prominent label and packaging operations, Avery Dennison also committed to source its paper pulp from 100 percent certified sources — meaning from timber and pulp companies that practice certified sustainable forestry. The company said 70 percent will be paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Similarly with chemicals, it aims to reach a point where 70 percent of the chemicals it uses are environmentally friendly or not harmful.

Behind these ambitious sustainability goals and indeed pushing Avery Dennison to be a voice in the sustainability movement within the apparel and footwear industry is Helen Sahi, senior director of sustainability for Avery Dennison’s Retail Branding and Information Solutions division, a $1.6 billion business. RBIS is the division that provides labels that allow inventory tracking and materials sourcing on so many clothes and footwear sold by retailers around the world.

Sahi also heads up corporate sustainability within Avery Dennison, for which she identifies sustainability challenges and prioritizes the corporation’s work on those challenges. She also heads up Avery Dennison’s sustainability partnership with the Rainforest Alliance.

GreenBiz had a chance to talk with Helen Sahi recently about her work at Avery Denison, her career and industry sustainability issues. What follows is our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

GreenBiz Senior Writer Barbara Grady: It appears that Avery Dennison’s work in sustainability went into high gear in 2011, which is the year you arrived. Were you hired to lead this charge?

Helen Sahi: Sustainability has really been core to who we are at Avery Dennison. Our founding members thought we could do more good running a good business than starting a non-profit. But even though it’s been core for 80 years, there wasn’t a sustainability team formed until about 2009.

I was hired in 2011 to lead sustainability strategy within one of our business units, Retail Branding and Information Solutions. And just over two years ago I was also asked by the CEO to lead the sustainability efforts from the corporate level, so I wear two hats. At that time, we had a corporate sustainability team and some of our 2015 goals were already in place.

When I joined the company in 2011, I found that although we were doing some good things within our operations and in our supply chain, we weren’t part of the larger conversation around sustainability in the apparel and footwear industry. When I looked outside of the organization, I found the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and knew that was where we needed to be. I reached out to the SAC.

Grady: How did you get involved in sustainability work?

Sahi: I was in college studying geology when one of my professors alerted me to opportunities in a new business: environmental assessment and remediation. So I took some courses in soil science and chemistry and when I went looking for a job, I applied to environmental consulting companies. I started in consulting, overseeing the drilling of wells and soil sampling, collecting samples and doing what is known as environmental site assessments where you did background research to see if companies had spills, issues with leaking underground tanks and things like that.

I had always been a kid that wanted to do something bigger than me, something outside of myself to help make a difference in the world. So hopefully I’ve done a little of that.

Grady: What prepared you for this career?

Sahi: The best preparation was real life experience, everything from getting to visit sites where you could see the causes of environmental contamination first hand to being able to work within the financial world where you could see what the financial and reputational implications were in many sectors.

I went from working at a consulting company to working at a manufacturing company where I did similar things, environmental assessments and remediation but this time it was for the company I worked for.

From there, I went into banking in 1992 when (the U.S.) was in the midst of the savings and loan crisis and banks had portfolios of contaminated real estate they needed evaluated and sometimes cleaned up before they could disposition out of their portfolio. I was in banking for 17 years and the role evolved from an environmental assessment role to one that is today considered more sustainability oriented — where we started to look at the health of our buildings, indoor air quality, asbestos, underground storage tanks.

Then we started to look at our own GHG emissions. We reported to the CDP and were also a signatory on the CDP request as an investor. With that we looked at GHG emissions in the investor owned utility portfolio, working with outside organizations like UNEP FI (United Nations Environment Program Finance Initiative) and the Environmental Bankers Association.

Grady: What have been your major accomplishments at Avery Dennison, and the company’s major accomplishments, in sustainability?

 Sahi: The biggest accomplishment has been in assisting the company to develop its 2025 sustainability goals, which are science and context based. I am really proud of the fact that Avery Dennison is looking at the greater picture and being bold about its goals — we’re not just looking at incremental movement. Our GHG reduction goal is based on the “3% Solution” published by WWF and CDP; our paper goal addresses the need for certified paper and our guiding principles as we develop products and solutions are grounded in The Natural Step and the Future Fit Business Benchmarks.

As I mentioned, some of our 2015 goals were in place before I started with the company, and those goals expire at the end of this year. So, about a year and a half ago, we started developing our news goals.

Grady: How did you build consensus around action at the company?

Sahi: Gaining internal alignment and commitment is a core element of the Avery Dennison culture. I had lots of conversations. We did phone interviews at the start of the process. Then we had an in-person workshop, conference calls and lots of emails. The key was that we involved many people from the entire organization and not just the executives, but key stakeholders throughout the company.

I think the challenge is keeping the momentum going. But to that end, we set up a Sustainability Council that is chaired by our COO, Mitch Butier.

It certainly helped that we had the CEO’s and COO’s full support throughout the entire process. In February, we had a leadership meeting where our goals were announced. Just recently, we published our sustainability report that includes not only our progress toward our 2015 goals but includes our 2025 as well.

Grady: Was it difficult to garner all that support?

Sahi:  I wouldn’t say it was difficult; it may have been challenging at times since anytime you have so many people involved in a process like this, you’ll have different viewpoints.

The process took about 10 months and, that may seem long, but by having the dialogue around the goals and around what’s important to Avery Dennison and the world, we were able to achieve alignment.

Some goals may be harder to achieve than others, and we realize that, but we have some really smart people working at Avery Dennison and we are starting to figure out what needs to happen next. I think there was a bit of nervousness on everyone’s part, including mine when you put out goals that you don’t know exactly how you’ll achieve them but that’s what leadership is all about and we have great leadership.

Grady: Within consumer goods industries, including apparel and footwear, there’s been increasing discussion about including the contents of a product, especially chemicals, on a product’s label. Avery Dennison has been involved in these discussions. What is the company’s position? 

Sahi: We have been involved with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition since 2011 and a lot of the work that is being done there includes work around how you incorporate not only what is in a garment but from where. For example, there is a facility environmental module and as a manufacturer, we need to report on such things as energy reduction measures, wastewater handling, indoor air quality and other environmental factors.

Grady: What are your thoughts about the upcoming United Nations Climate Conference coming up in Paris, the COP 21 Conference of Parties? Will Avery Dennison be participating?

Sahi: Our CEO, Dean Scarborough, will be speaking at UNEP’s (United Nations Environmental Program) Sustainable Innovation Forum and a number of other folks from our business units will be there including myself.

We committed to reduce our GHG emissions by 3 percent year-over-year over the next 10 years and I think it’s important that we get the word out that there are companies committing to aggressive goals and, more importantly, that we need others to follow.

And, we’re looking to be part of the conversation as the world moves to a post-carbon future.

Grady: What do you hope is achieved at these meetings?

Sahi: A couple of things. One, I know it will be a great learning experience — these events always are. There are some companies out there doing some great things with respect to GHG reduction and we can all learn from each other. And, as I mentioned, I think it’s important to get the word out that all segments of society can do their part in reducing GHG emissions, from businesses to governments and civil society.

*This story first appeared on Greenbiz.

Why Nike and MIT see textiles as material to climate change

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By Joel Makower

Sutterstock: optimarc
Sutterstock: optimarc

Nike has just come out of the starting gate with some new initiatives aimed at taming its corporate and supply-chain footprint, and as usual it has hit the ground running.

Its latest sprint includes a collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a Materials Challenge seeking “revolutionary new ideas” on innovative and low-impact fabrics and textiles, a commitment to fully power its company-owned and operated facilities with renewable energy within a decade. Oh, and an updated app so that your company can follow in Nike’s footsteps.

The MIT announcements represents the next chapter between the two organizations to study the environmental and social impacts of the key materials used to make most apparel and footwear products: cotton, polyester, leather and rubber. An MIT report, commissioned by Nike and released last week, looks at and quantifies the impacts and key hotspots where these materials have significant climate and other environmental impacts.

“There’s been a big missing part of the story around climate, which is that people have not understood the footprint of where fossil fuels show up as an imbedded part of a sector, and in particular in materials,” Hannah Jones, Nike’s chief sustainability officer and VP, innovation accelerator, told me last week. The report’s goal, she said, was “to galvanize the material industry and the chemical industry that supports them into change.”

Jones explained that despite a tremendous amount of work already being undertaken by Nike and other footwear and apparel companies, “We really need to kickstart a much bigger conversation with the industry as a whole and start to send signals to the materials vendors and the chemical companies that do the inventing behind them.”

Nike has opened a portal within MIT’s CoLab, a crowdsourcing platform “where citizens work with experts and each other to create, analyze, and select detailed proposals for what to do about climate change.” The CoLab, housed within the school’s Center for Collective Intelligence, hosts “contests,” each focusing on a Big Question related to climate change — for example, the hardware, software and business models that can increase urban energy efficiency; actions that can address energy-water nexus challenges; and how to mitigate the urban heat island effect — more than two dozen altogether, though participation in some is light.

On Friday, the CoLab began accepting proposals for “revolutionary new ideas for how to engage industries, designers and consumers in valuing, demanding and adopting low-impact fabrics and textiles.”

Material evidence

The climate and other environmental impacts of clothing and footwear don’t usually rank up there with coal-fired power plants, cement manufacturing and — well, smog-spewing Volkswagens — as major contributors to climate change. But as the new MIT report points out, the impacts aren’t trivial. Example: The emissions associated with a single T-shirt is roughly equal to the carbon footprint of driving a passenger car for 10 miles.

That puts the materials community — the companies, industries and individuals who work with or make decisions around materials — “in a unique position to enable sustainable patterns of consumption,” says the report.

The industry’s clout is driven by its size. The global apparel industry produces more than 150 billion garments in a typical year — equivalent to more than 20 new articles of clothing for every person on the planet — and is a $1.8 trillion market. In 2015, the industry is projected to use nearly 100 million tons of fiber and filament yarns, about 40 percent agriculturally derived (cotton, wool, etc.) and 60 percent petroleum-based synthetics (polyester, nylon and various blends). Both have climate impacts.

And then there’s water. It takes several dozen gallons — more than 400 pounds — to process just one pound of textiles, according to a 2009 study. Given that footwear and apparel manufacturing is concentrated in a handful of regions, that can lead to significant water stresses. For example, in 2009, textile production ranked third among major industries in China in terms of total wastewater discharge, primarily from the dyeing and finishing steps of manufacturing.

All of which, says Jones, “is a major concern, and it’s also a major business opportunity.”

Jones views the MIT challenge as a means of unearthing innovative solutions — new technologies, novel materials and the like — but beyond that, she says, “We’re really looking at it from a system-change perspective and at how we can kickstart this revolution in the materials industry.”

This is hardly the first initiative by Nike to transform its industry and supply chain. Indeed, the company’s materials and manufacturing innovation initiatives and achievements, led by Jones, has a long history, as we’ve reported for years. The company is one of the top buyers of organic cotton. Its factories have moved to water- and chemical-free dyeing. It has stopped sourcing leather from the Amazon rainforest. It has recycled countless millions of plastic bottles into garments. It has been on a journey to achieve zero discharge of hazardous chemicals throughout its supply chain.

And the company has shared its innovations, from scoring the environmental attributes of materials to sharing patents. A few years ago, Nike partnered with NASA and two other U.S. federal agencies to identify game-changing innovations, such as sustainable fabrics, or how to transform waste systems in both developed and developing countries.

Walking a fine line

Two years ago, the company publically released an app, called Making, to allow designers to research fabrics or materials on such things as water consumption, chemistry, energy and waste. Last week, Nike released an updated 3.0 version of the app, which includes comparisons of the energy used and greenhouse gases created during the production of each material.

I asked Jones how the company walks a fine line between sharing such information and staying a step ahead in a fiercely competitive sector.

“It’s definitely a delicate balance,” she said. “And we’re constantly walking along that line of where is this competitive and where is this pre-competitive? As a sustainability practitioner, I actually love it when things become competitive because that means it’s going mainstream. It means that it’s a pull from the market versus us pushing.”

But much of this transcends competition, she says. “We do the industry a whole lot of good by actually helping create clarity and standards and transparency around the footprints. We build industry coalitions. Oh, and by the way, we’re absolutely going to compete on some of the other things.”

Nike is far from alone in seeking materials innovations. Patagonia, for one, has been continually pushing the limits of innovation — everything from “ethical goose down” to Yulex, a substitute to petroleum-based neoprene for wetsuits, derived from guayule plants indigenous to the southwestern United States. Kering, which owns brands like Gucci, Saint Laurent and Puma, last year opened a Materials Innovation Lab in Northern Italy, dedicated to helping making more sustainable choices in their supply chains and products. Adidas announced last week that it will use worn-out cleats and combine them with scrap materials from other industries to make new cleats.

Increasingly, such innovations are coming from sources outside the company walls. “Somebody once said to me, ‘There are a lot of really smart people out there. And most of them don’t work for you,’” says Jones. And, she adds, some innovations even come from outside the sector, requiring Nike to tap nontraditional sources for innovation. The CoLab challenge is part of that effort.

“You need to fail early and fail fast many, many times to get to the one thing that you can change and disrupt an entire market,” says Jones. For example, she says, Nike approached a number of companies asking, “Can we knit an upper using 3D geometry and complex algorithms that will help the athlete and support the foot?” It took many iterations until they succeeded.

Says Jones: “We fell forward all the time on that one. It’s now a major platform for the whole company. And it’s having a massive impact on waste reduction.”

Clearly, Jones is thinking big. “My end goal is ultimately creating an entirely closed-loop business model,” she told me, adding that the making of materials will be key to reaching the goal of “renewable, reusable materials that have an infinite life and that can be re-launched and rebuilt. And do that at scale.”

Another goal, she might have added, is to make sure that mindset becomes mainstream, the way the race is run.

*This story first appeared on GreenBiz.

Why the outdoor industry needs to climb Mount Sustainability

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By Alan AtKisson

Image: Shutterstock/ESOlex
Image: Shutterstock/ESOlex

Last month I had the honor of speaking to about a hundred CEOs and other top managers in the industry called “outdoor” — that is, makers of clothing and equipment to go camping, climbing, hiking, mountaineering or whatever strikes your fancy.

Now, you might think that companies in that branch already get sustainability, and indeed, many do. One of the world’s most iconic sustainable brands, Patagonia, is an outdoor company. The organization that invited me to speak, European Outdoor Group, even has a sustainability and CSR manager ready to advise corporate members on knotty problems related to chemistry, sustainable production, worker well-being and all the rest of this demanding agenda. (Her name is Pamela Ravasio, and she really knows her stuff.)

I’m particularly proud of our own clients (obviously) in that industry, the Fenix Outdoor group, which owns Fjällräven and other popular brands. We at the AtKisson Group partnered with our friends at the Sustainable Fashion Academy a few years ago to help Fenix advance its CSR work, which resulted in a wonderfully clear internal guidance document called The Fenix Way (PDF). In that document, you also will find the first formal adoption of my firm’s Sustainability Compass as a corporate platform for CSR work. (It helps that one of Fenix’s divisions, Brunton, makes compasses.)

There are other sterling leaders in this industry group, too. But to my mind — and I shared this view with the CEOs — the outdoor industry could, and should, be doing a lot more.

Before I tell you what I think they should do, and why, consider these facts: The amount of time young people spend outdoors is plummeting while screen-time rises. And the average age of people who hike and camp is going up.

From a strictly business perspective, people in the outdoor industry are looking at a seriously worrying future scenario: fewer new customers and an aging, shrinking customer base. (The industry is not just standing idly by and watching this happen. Check out its social media campaign, Be Active Outdoor.)

sustainabilitycompass-design-600x600Now, “nature” is just one-fourth of the sustainability challenge (on our compass, it’s North). But it is a decidedly critical part. Without a healthy, functioning natural world, the human world would probably call it quits. Unless we moved out into space, as in the terrifying children’s movie “Wall-E.”

But unless people spend time in nature, they will never really know it.

Which means they will not be motivated to take care of it.

Enter the outdoor industry. From a pure business perspective, its job appears to be selling tents, boots, shirts and climbing gear.

But from a strategic perspective, it has a different job: to get people to fall in love with the natural world.

Meanwhile, the health of that self-same natural world is under serious threat from climate change, loss of biodiversity, pollution and poverty (desperately poor people have more important things on their mind than the integrity of national parks and species habitat). Not to mention the specter of increasing neglect driven by the above-named social, technological and demographic trends (national park managers are also worried about these and related issues).

End result, if not much is done: less “natural world” for people to fall in love with.

Which, ergo, drops people in the outdoor business smack dab into the heart of the sustainability business. (No sustainability = no business.)

So what should these companies do? My recommendations are simple, and they are all designed to create business benefits in addition to sustainability advances. In the outdoor industry, these two things truly go hand in hand.

1. Set higher goals

A modern founder of sustainable business practice, Ray Anderson, talked about “climbing Mount Sustainability” — and going all the way to the top. He envisioned creating a completely sustainable company, one that gives back to nature, and to people, more than it takes out. A few outdoor companies are also aiming to do that.

I was particularly impressed with the German company Vaude (German), whose CEO told me that its sustainability ambitions are hitting the boundaries of the technically possible.) But actually, they all should be climbing Mount Sustainability. The whole outdoor sector could be a sustainability pioneer and leader, not just a few star companies. (Think about the impact that an industry-wide commitment to sustainability could make.)

2. Get more involved

Many outdoor companies have relationships with an NGO or two, and many outdoor leaders support conservation efforts. But there is so much more they could do. Consider the Mountain Partnership, a global effort to promote sustainable development in all the world’s poor and mountainous regions. Many of those regions play host to the hikers and climbers who patronize outdoor companies.

The outdoor sector could more clearly engage with and support that and other similar efforts, such as by matching up companies with relevant and specific outdoor travel goals — and not just mountains. This would be especially timely, considering how the new U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be calling on these companies, and everyone else, to really raise the bar on partnership and engagement.

3. Be more communicative

Finally, the outdoor industry needs to get a whole lot better at telling its story. Many companies in that sector are small, which means they do not experience the same demands for transparency that big companies in apparel or sports often face.

But unless they get a whole lot louder, and more compelling, they are not going to break the spell of iPads and smartphones and attract new, young climbers and campers. Setting high sustainability goals, and talking about what they are doing to reach those goals, can add some “oomph” while synergizing beautifully with “normal” marketing messages — and helping these companies differentiate and stick out.

“Want to save the planet? So do we. But first, try climbing it.” (Happy to sell that idea, so contact me if you want to buy it. Proceeds go to conservation efforts.)

Future investments

These three actions, pursued intelligently, would not be new “costs” for these companies; they would be extremely wise investments in the future. They would help push sustainability forward, while also helping these companies tackle a business problem (a potentially shrinking market) that will get more challenging.

In this vision, raising the outdoor sector’s bar on sustainability, and communicating loudly about it, would result in more people getting involved with the natural world, visiting it, advocating and acting for its health, while the companies themselves grew — and still reduced their environmental impact while improving their social impact. (Hey, if Unilever can aim for that, selling soap and deodorant, surely outdoor companies can do the same selling sleeping bags and climbing boots.)

The day after my speech, I wandered into the giant outdoor trade fair that was just getting under way, in Friedrichshafen, Germany. The sight of all those beautiful tents, backpacks and fancy boots was inspiring. So were the not-infrequent information tablets explaining the “sustainable,” “recycled” and other qualities of some of the products.

But I look forward to a future fair, where virtually every product is similarly badged and competes for buyers who demand not just the best but also the most sustainable.

**This story first appeared on GreenBiz here.

Can China’s textile industry clean up its supply chain?

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By Racheal Meiers, Director, Inclusive Economy

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

As part of BSR’s Business Leadership for an Inclusive Economy initiative, we are running an interview series with thought leaders from business, government, civil society, academia and philanthropy.

Their voices and perspectives will help deepen our conversation on how we can build a more inclusive economy and how business most effectively can contribute to that vision.

We spoke to Liang Xiaohui, head of social responsibility for the China National Textile and Apparel Council (CNTAC), about striving for good jobs in textile manufacturing, technology changes and impacts on workers and an inclusive future for the industry in China.

Racheal Meiers: What does it mean to be included in the economy? How does the textile industry make the economy more inclusive?

China National Textile and Apparel Council

Liang Xiaohui, head of social responsibility for the China National Textile and Apparel Council (CNTAC).

Liang Xiaohui: To be included in the economy fundamentally means to share the results of social and economic development by creating an equal opportunity for everybody to be active in economic activities and decisions.

Specifically, the textile industry creates jobs for people without a lot of education and skills — that’s why manufacturing is quite important in an economy, especially in developing countries.

To achieve an inclusive economy, it’s very important for businesses and also governments to think about how the interests of employers and employees can be balanced — and the voices of workers can be heard and their concerns can be addressed. As we look toward the future, this balance will be even more important.

For instance, if we can upgrade technologies and equipment and, at the same time, educate workers and let them upgrade themselves so that they have opportunities for better, higher paid, higher skilled jobs, that will be a big step toward achieving an inclusive economy in our sector.

Meiers: Given where things are in China right now, with changes in the labor force and competition from other countries in manufacturing, how do you see inclusion as fitting into this context?

Liang: In this context, we can no longer rely on lower wages or lax environmental practices to be competitive; we have to evolve to a higher stage of the supply chain to compete.

Getting there will take two critical elements: The first one is to be innovative, such as upgrading technologies in manufacturing; and the second is building a workforce of people that can effectively work with and work for innovations. To support our efforts to upgrade our industry, we have to build up our human resources potential and give people, especially existing textile workers, more opportunities to learn expertise and skills.

Meiers: How are your member companies approaching technology upgrades and related labor force engagement?

Liang: That’s really a big question, and I cannot give you a general answer because we have almost half a million textile and garment companies in China. But I do see that many companies are working hard to incorporate technology tools for different purposes, such as reducing pollution and increasing efficiency.

A very popular idea in our industry now is to exchange human power with machines, which is in part driven by the lack of skilled workers, and even a shortage of low- and unskilled workers in China in recent years.

At the same time, there are factories that are working to invest in their workforces. They are calling on government and associations like ours to improve education and vocational training to support upgraded skills in the industry. Some factories are also taking these steps themselves.

For example, one factory I recently visited is investing a lot of money to purchase very advanced equipment from Europe. To support these technology upgrades, they have also started their own academy, a professional training school where they can train their workers and future employees on how to work with the new equipment.

This factory sees investments in the expertise and skills of their workers as part of the process of upgrading their technology hardware. And they also understand it will be important to pay higher wages to the workers who become capable of operating the new machines.

Meiers: That’s an encouraging example. How is the Chinese government getting involved in these issues of workforce skill development, to support technology upgrades in the manufacturing industry?

Liang: The government has been monitoring this issue for many years. Recent policies from 2014 require that a minimum of 30 percent of local additional fees on education shall be used for vocational education, and the enrollment of vocational schools should raise from about 30 million in 2012 to more than 38 million in 2020, almost a 30 percent increase.

This will help transfer more young people into vocational schools, making them advanced industry workers with skills and expertise. The young people see where the economy is going and understand that to be included in that future economy, they need to know the skills required by it.

For example, there was a story last year of a young man who quit Peking University to enroll in an occupational school to become an auto mechanic — he did this because he liked the work, but he also knew that the auto maintenance industry in China is very underdeveloped for the demand that is coming.

Meiers: Shifting gears a little bit, let’s talk about the current workforce in textile manufacturing. Who are some of the most vulnerable people that are taking these jobs, and how do you work with your CNTAC members to identify these groups of people and put in place mechanisms to support them?  

Liang: I think the most vulnerable group in the industry is migrant women workers in their 30s and 40s. In the labor market, in the factory, they are not in a very good position. They have very low representation in management, and they have low levels of training and education as compared with male peers. The reason for this is that most of them come from villages and underdeveloped regions, where women have a very low status and so don’t receive as much education and opportunity.

We are actually doing some work with BSR to support these women, and all women workers in the industry. Though more than 65 percent of workers in the industry are women, they hold very few positions in management. Working with BSR, and learning from your expertise and experience supporting women’s empowerment in China, we are hoping to build up the potential of individual women to expand their skills and advance to these positions, while at the same time working to expand management’s understanding of women workers’ potential.

Meiers: In these collaborations, what opportunities do you see? How can we expand partnerships to support a more inclusive economy?

Liang: I think the greatest opportunity from our collaborations is that we are a national business association and you are an international business association, of sorts. And this is critical, because we are working at both ends of the supply chain. A lot of your members are buyers of our members.

So in working together, we can try to mobilize both ends of the international supply chain. So many issues can be addressed in this way.

Read perspectives on the inclusive economy from The Rockefeller Foundation’s Zia Khan, Western Union’s Talya Bosch and GlaxoSmithKline’s Clare Griffin.

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