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Posted Date: 5/25/2011

Apparel Salutes its 2011 Sustainability All-Star Award Winners

By Masha Zager
Apparel’s third annual Sustainability All Stars program finds five companies determined to drive difference for people and planet — bringing profits along for the ride.

Winners were chosen based not on specific criteria in particular categories, such as use of organic materials, energy policy, wastewater management, recycling initiatives or social issues, but for demonstrating a commitment toward making their businesses more sustainable in specific ways, and a plan to continue down that path.

Anvil Knitwear
Nominated by: Gerber Technology and Self

For 130 years, Anvil Knitwear has earned a reputation as an innovative and socially responsible company. About six years ago, this New York City-based designer and manufacturer of activewear decided to reevaluate the meaning of good corporate citizenship in the 21st century. “We sat down and talked about what was going to be important, and we decided the next big revolution would be the environment,” says CEO and president Anthony Corsano.

He adds, “We started documenting our environmental policies and procedures so we could go to market with a story. We developed a product — a t-shirt — and all of a sudden, it just took off. The policies and procedures became more meaningful, we moved on to product safety and integrity and that became more meaningful — it was like a snowball coming down a mountain.” Now, Corsano says, the program has become so deeply embedded in the company that no decision is made without considering its impact on society, the environment, and product safety and integrity.
 
As a small company, Anvil decided early to identify and work with leading NGOs to develop its program. It selected Social Accountability International and Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP) for social issues, Ceres in the environmental space, the Oeko-Tex Association for product certification, and the Textile Exchange as a resource on sustainable fabrics. Corsano says, “All these organizations have helped us develop mature sustainability programs with reputable standards behind them, and we continue to work with them.”

From that first t-shirt, Anvil Knitwear expanded to 18 styles of eco-friendly t-shirts, sport shirts, fleece, totes and baseball caps (out of a total of about 70 styles altogether). In addition, a large percentage of its private-label products have some sustainable components. Today, the company is the single largest purchaser of U.S. organic cotton and transitional cotton (cotton grown by farmers switching to organic methods) and has the sixth-largest organic program in the world.

 Anvil offers several lines of eco-friendly clothing. Its organic apparel is made with 100-percent certified organic cotton and has a carbon footprint 20 percent lower than conventional apparel. Recycled tees and tote bags, made of preconsumer recycled cotton, are certified carbon free by the environmental group Carbonrally. Sustainable tees and fleece are made from a blend of recycled polyester and organic or transitional cotton.

Anvil recently launched the “Double It!” campaign, an initiative to double the domestic acreage of organic cotton by providing a financial incentive to traditional cotton farmers. It is trying to promote the growth of organic cotton in Central America and is also investigating the use of hemp.
The company’s environmental program extends to its own facilities as well. A heat recovery system in its textile facility is now reducing oil consumption significantly. All facilities are recycling cardboard, metal scrap, plastics, scrap cloth, batteries, paper and other items. Shipping cartons were redesigned to reduce energy consumption.

In addition to reducing energy use, Anvil avoids using fossil fuels wherever possible. Twelve percent of the steam used in textile manufacturing is generated from biomass, and the company also uses steam that is a byproduct of electricity generation. Together, these two initiatives saved 753,000 gallons of oil in 2008 and 671,000 gallons in 2009.

Education is a critical part of Anvil’s environmental program. “If we don’t educate the consumer, we’ll be treading water,” Corsano explains, noting that the company frequently makes presentations in schools in the United States and Central America. A new and powerful educational tool is Track My T (www.trackmyt.com), an interactive website that allows users to explore the journey their t-shirts have taken from cotton seed in the field to shirt in the closet. The site, which tracks t-shirts for children ages two to 12 on the basis of a tracking number printed on each shirt, allows users to explore cotton farms, a gin and spinners, as well as Anvil’s textile mill, cut and sew plants, and distribution facility. It also shows users how to minimize their own carbon footprints as t-shirt owners.

As each module has a lesson plan, the site has been added to school curricula worldwide. Recently, the Disney Store, for which Anvil makes printed organic cotton t-shirts, licensed Track My T and now presents it on the Disney Store website, giving the application even wider exposure. Corsano says, “They thought it was amazingly important, and their sales of the product and the reaction of the guests to ‘Track the life of the shirt’ has become phenomenal for them. … It’s opened doors that we never would have imagined would be opened. We’ve been recognized by lots of organizations. It’s transformed our company.”

FesslerUSA
Nominated by: RadiciSpandex

In the middle of the last decade, FesslerUSA, a Pennsylvania-based manufacturer of American-made, private-label custom knitwear, learned about organic cotton that was entering the marketplace and began researching the new materials on behalf of its customers. “That’s when we caught the bug,” says Bonnie Meck, FesslerUSA’s COO and chief sustainability officer, explaining that the company not only began using eco-friendly materials whenever possible but also launched a formal, full-scale sustainability program.

“As a family-owned company, we decided this was a path we wanted to go down because it was the right thing to do,” she says. At first, the going was slow. As a small company, FesslerUSA had few resources to devote to its new program, and its customers were initially dubious about the value of sustainable products and processes. But the management team soaked up as much information as it could from such sustainability pioneers as Patagonia, continued to push its ideas to customers and potential customers, and tried to instill a culture change in its workforce by framing all decisions through a “lens of sustainability.”

After taking a series of what Meck calls “little baby steps” in the direction of sustainability, FesslerUSA found that small steps can add up to a big impact. “What we’re doing is slowly changing the culture in our company and, hopefully, leading by example in our industry,” Meck says. Employees now volunteer to serve on the sustainability committee, suggest new initiatives, and adopt sustainable practices in their lives — some have even installed renewable-energy systems in their own homes. Customers are realizing that sustainable products give them a marketing advantage. And increasingly, FesslerUSA finds itself in the position of mentoring much larger companies that are just starting down the path to sustainability.

Today, FesslerUSA develops and promotes fabrics made from a range of sustainable alternatives to conventional cotton, including both organically grown cotton and sustainable, cellulose-based fibers such as Modal and TENCEL, which can be grown using little or no pesticides. Other initiatives range from recycling — nearly all cardboard is now recycled, along with significant amounts of paper and plastic — to conserving energy by using energy-efficient T5 fluorescent lighting throughout the facility along with motion sensors and reflective paint, to installing a dishwasher so employees do not have to use disposable cups and dishes. Employee car-pooling is encouraged with premium parking spaces, and the company has begun selling its irregulars and overstocks locally, at low prices.

Building and renovation decisions are all made with an eye to their impact on the environment. To house its corporate headquarters and largest production facility, FesslerUSA chose to reclaim a Superfund brownfield site, transforming it into a healthy and efficient workplace. Among other things, it replaced the building’s old HVAC system with a modern, efficient one. And when the company needed a new office and design support space, it chose to use ‘green’ building techniques.

The sustainability program’s proudest achievement is the brand-new solar roof — a photovoltaic solar-power generation system mounted on the roof of the Deer Lake, Pa., manufacturing facility. With 1,602 solar panels (similar to residential solar panels but larger and more efficient), the system will provide 450,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year — about two-thirds of the electricity the facility uses, or enough to power 35 homes. Carbon dioxide emissions will be reduced by 300 tons per year (equivalent to taking 61 passenger cars off the road). In addition to installing the solar panels, the company added extra insulation, which will reduce its energy needs even further.

Completing the solar roof project was a challenge. Four years ago, FesslerUSA applied for, and won, a grant that paid some of the costs. But because the remainder of the funding had to come from the company itself, the recession put the project on hold for several years. Even after the project became financially feasible again, it was held up due to the lack of available short-term construction financing. “We were knocking on doors everywhere,” Meck says. This spring, all the pieces came together and the roof was installed.

Even though FesslerUSA launched its sustainability program in order to become a better corporate citizen, and not to make a profit, it has been surprised and happy to find that sustainability pays off in the end. As Walter Meck, the company’s CEO and chairman, says with evident pleasure, “The steps we took to be better people have made us a more profitable company.”

Lands’ End Inc.
Self-nominated

The global multi-channel retailer Lands’ End has a long history of involvement with environmental causes because its founder, Gary Comer, who became a prominent environmental activist after his retirement, always wanted the company to share his values and commitment. When the current president, Nick Coe, joined the company in 2009, he formalized its program by explicitly setting out goals and principles, naming an SVP-level sustainability champion and appointing a companywide GoGreen team to develop and oversee projects.

Lands’ End’s sustainability statement, organized around the categories of “people, process, and product,” commits the company to improve resource use and waste elimination, minimize its carbon footprint, encourage vendors and customers to embrace sustainable practices, and offer sustainable products. Over the past several years, the company has taken important steps toward all these goals.

Four key campus buildings have now obtained EPA Energy Star recognition, and a new distribution facility in the U.K. has achieved the highest level of BREEAM certification, analogous to LEED in the U.S. A “sustainable building showcase” is in the works, which will implement alternative energy at one of the company’s key facilities.

Waste management initiatives have been underway for more than two decades. Two well-established practices are including recycled content in all shipping boxes and recycling 100 percent of corrugate. But there’s still more to do: A new project focuses on how to collect, recycle and reuse customers’ used and discarded clothing, perhaps for home insulation.

Reducing greenhouse gases is a newer initiative; Lands’ End has participated in the independently run Carbon Disclosure Project since 2009 and has already reduced its carbon emissions by more than 15 percent from 2008 levels. Last year, working with a group of graduate students at the University of Wisconsin, the committee achieved the goal of identifying the company’s total carbon footprint, an exercise that vice president for sustainability Randy Peterson calls “rather daunting.” Now that a baseline exists, the committee is simultaneously working to refine the measurement process and identify opportunities to make improvements.

The results of the carbon-footprint exercise were somewhat surprising. Peterson says, “We were always thinking that transportation was a big part of the overall footprint, but it came out to less than 2 percent of the total. Production of catalogs turned out to be a bigger part.”

To reduce catalog mailings, Lands’ End is now using more email marketing. It also produces smaller, more targeted catalogs and segments its mailing lists so that customers receive more personalized mailings. Customers are given convenient options for limiting the catalogs they receive. And, following a warehouse employee’s suggestion, the company has stopped sending a catalog with every box it ships. Now, it includes a catalog only if the customer has not previously received it. Eliminating duplicate catalog mailings has saved $300,000 per year, aside from cutting down on unnecessary resource use.

Because so much of the sustainability program’s impact depends on the company’s employees, Lands’ End has taken a road show to more than 400 employees to share sustainability successes with them and sends all employees a weekly “cup of green tea” email about sustainability issues. As a result, employees are now “fully engaged with the process,” Peterson says, and are providing valuable feedback to the committee.

The company is also seeking to reduce the amount of commuting that employees must do — a quality-of-life issue as well as an environmental issue. The call center employs a large number of home-based customer service reps — at first just for peak-time overflow, but now including full-timers as well. Even non-call-center personnel now have more opportunities to develop alternative work schedules and work from home when it makes sense. “A large percentage of our employee population commute from about 40 miles away, which, with the bad weather in Wisconsin, can be hair-raising,” Peterson says. The company also works with other employers and local officials to encourage ride-sharing.

Lands’ End’s most important current project involves working with vendors to make their manufacturing processes more ecologically sound — for example, by using more eco-friendly dyes. The company is developing a vendor scorecard, which will be vetted by an independent organization; it hopes to have the scorecard ready for use this fall or early next year. To get the most bang for the buck, it will start with the larger vendors first, discussing their sustainability practices during regular site visits.

Product sustainability is another critical issue that Lands’ End has addressed over a number of years. Its goal today is to incorporate sustainability into the entire product line rather than offering a niche “eco-friendly” line. Peterson explains, “We’re looking at how we can incorporate more recycled materials into products, and at how we can not just sell ‘towels with organic cotton’ but raise the level of organic materials in all our cotton products.”
 
“The journey continues,” Peterson says. “We feel that we’re fully engaged, but we know we still have a road ahead of us.”

The North Face
Self-nominated

For The North Face, a leading supplier of technically innovative outdoor gear, sustainability is deeply intertwined with innovation. Philip Hamilton, vice president for global product, says, “Through innovation, sustainability and profitability can actually go hand in hand.”

The North Face works extensively with independent organizations to guide and verify its sustainability efforts. One of these organizations is bluesign, which is dedicated to understanding and improving product manufacturing. Bluesign audits The North Face’s fabric suppliers and mills to evaluate and improve their use of chemicals, energy and water. Currently, 30 percent of The North Face’s material volume is bluesign-certified. The North Face began the bluesign audit process with its highest-volume mills, but 10 years from now it hopes to have 100 percent of its fabrics bluesign-certified.

Hamilton says, “What I personally love about our focus on bluesign is that … due to the size of our business now, we can really help bluesign get into more mills — which, in turn, helps us push the entire industry toward this upstream focus.” As a result of its efforts, smaller apparel companies that deal with the same mills can now specify bluesign-certified materials — something they might not otherwise have had the clout to achieve.

Adam Mott, The North Face’s sustainability manager, explains that suppliers must pay for the bluesign audits themselves and must spend six to nine months working toward certification. Not surprisingly, many mills have exhibited what Mott calls “a slight resistance to change.” However, he says the process ultimately saves money for the mills through improved resource efficiency. In the long run, the process benefits all parties. In addition to sustainable processes, occupational health and safety in the mills is also a focus of The North Face’s program.

To improve product sustainability, The North Face uses recycled material content wherever possible. Currently, about 15 percent of total material volume is recycled — accounting for about $150 million of product sold. Another strategy is to substitute natural for synthetic materials. Because the company wants its efforts to have the largest impact possible, it focuses on reformulating its highest-volume products. One of these is the popular Venture jacket, still The North Face’s best-selling rainwear after 10 years. Beginning in spring 2011, the Venture is being constructed from HyVent DT Eco fabric, made with natural castor oil. This change — which does not make the jacket any less waterproof — will eliminate, at a conservative estimate, the use of more than 50,000 pounds of petroleum-based materials per year.

Though revamping the Venture jacket was an obvious win, Mott says that not all benefits are easy to communicate. For example, incorporating recycled materials into a fleece fabric that is used in 30 popular styles may have an enormous impact — but telling people about it is difficult. “We can’t talk about a product being 35 percent certified,” Mott says.

A recent greenhouse-gas emissions inventory of the company’s operations and facilities indicated great opportunities for improvement in the distribution center and retail stores. In response to that assessment, The North Face installed a solar array in its distribution center that powers 25 percent of the facility. It is now working with an outside engineering team to identify additional ways to improve the DC’s energy efficiency.

The plastic bags used to protect products during shipping also add significantly to the company’s carbon footprint. Mott says, “We looked at renewable options, but they tended to melt or to color the product. We’ve decreased the thickness of the bag, but we haven’t figured out a way to make it 100 percent sustainable.” To keep the bags out of the landfill, The North Face is partnering with a recycling organization to collect them and make them into products such as plastic lumber and reusable shopping bags. “We’re going to divert at least 2 million bags from the landfill this year,” Mott says.

Education is another important facet of the sustainability program. Working with the advocacy groups Protect Our Winters and Alliance for Climate Education, The North Face created an educational program — Hot Planet, Cool Athletes — to teach schoolchildren about climate change. “We partnered to include our athletes,” Mott says. “It makes it more relevant and exciting for kids. We’ll show them snowboarding, and then talk about how climate change affects winter sports. … The goal is to get kids to commit to doing something to reduce their impact on the environment.”

The North Face also supports James Balog, the photographer whose time-lapse photography of glacial retreat has galvanized public awareness of climate change. A new project involves tracking glacial recession at Mt. Everest; because placing cameras there required technical climbing beyond Balog’s capabilities, The North Face sponsored athletes to install the cameras used in the project.

Even more ambitious projects are in store for the future. Mott says the company is beginning to investigate green chemistry (chemical processes that reduce hazardous substances), biomimicry (innovation inspired by nature) and other disciplines, looking for ways to create “disruptive changes” to decades-old practices. “We don’t want sustainability to be an add-on,” he says. “It’s being built into how we innovate and how we look at product development overall.”

RESTORE Clothing
Nominated by: The Pratt Center for Community Development

Although many companies have integrated environmental awareness into their activities, few were founded specifically for that purpose. RESTORE Clothing is one of those few, having been committed from the outset to the triple-bottom-line philosophy of “people, planet and profit.”

Anthony and Céleste Lilore are owners of NOCHAIRS, which designs and develops custom, private-label clothing for the in-store and support personnel of the cosmetic and fragrance industries and the hotel and spa industries. Because NOCHAIRS’ existing clients were not interested in using eco-friendly fabrics at the time when they first became available in the marketplace, the couple decided to start a separate business to market what they call “environmentally preferable” clothing to a different customer base. (Co-founder Céleste Lilore emphasizes that because no product has zero impact on the environment, the term “sustainable” can be misleading.) They launched RESTORE Clothing in 2008 and now produce activewear for high-end spas and gym chains, as well as outdoor clothing.

As newcomers to eco-manufacturing, the Lilores relied a great deal on the expertise of Green America, a nonprofit whose mission is to help consumers, investors and businesses make environmentally responsible choices. Lilore says, “We used their guidelines to vet ourselves and make sure we were asking the appropriate questions.” Now, the company’s products are Green America–certified.

RESTORE became the first company to market apparel made from Repreve recycled nylon yarn, which conserves the equivalent of 0.6 gallons of gasoline for every pound of yarn used. It also uses Repreve recycled polyester yarn (0.4 gallons of gasoline per pound) as well as other fabrics, including ProModal, a cellulose-based blend, and even organic cotton. The company also collaborates with researchers to test new fabrics.

In addition to conserving petroleum, recycled fabrics require less water in production than conventional materials. They last longer because they do not wear as quickly and have greater color retention. They also are more stain resistant and quicker to dry. Increased wear time and reduced need for washing and drying further reduce these fabrics’ environmental impact.

All RESTORE Clothing products are designed to be washed responsibly with cold water, biodegradable detergent or non-chlorine bleach — and line dried. This laundering method, the Lilores say, is more gentle on skin and lungs, makes clothing last longer, saves electricity and reduces harmful effluents.

RESTORE Clothing pays attention to the environmental impact of the entire package, not just of the garment. Hangtags for all products are made of post-consumer recycled paper and soy ink, which is less toxic than conventional inks. GREENLINE Minigrip biodegradable bags, which are recyclable and compostable, are used to ship products. Even employee business cards are printed on Terraskin, a tree-free, biodegradable paper made with limestone dust and resin.

To reduce waste, RESTORE Clothing donates wearable clothing and scraps to Materials for the Arts and Wearable Collections, New York City-based organizations that put scraps and garments to good use. Cutting room scraps are donated to Cutting Room Recycling, a group that turns garment-cutting scraps into padding for automobile trunks.

RESTORE Clothing is also deeply involved in efforts to maintain the viability of the New York City garment center, and it sources all manufacturing in the city. The Lilores see several benefits in local sourcing. From an environmental point of view, they are concerned about minimizing transportation. (They also live within walking distance of their office.) And from a social point of view, they are concerned about promoting the health of their local economy, sustaining the tradition of craftsmanship in garment making, and fostering creativity and innovation through collaboration with suppliers and other designers. Lilore says, “It’s like a throwback to an older way of life, but at the same time it’s a modern and innovative way of doing business.”

To source materials, RESTORE Clothing must look outside New York City, which has no textile industry. The company seeks out suppliers — such as United Knitting in Cleveland, Tenn. — that are committed to reducing their environmental impacts and to treating their workers fairly. Lilore says, “We want to be a resource where conscious customers can come and know we’ve done the best we can, and they don’t have to do the research.”

Of course, low-impact, long-lived clothing is environmentally beneficial only if consumers actually wear it — and for that, they have to love the clothes. That’s why Lilore says, “We want to make the best-fitting yoga pants anyone’s ever worn, and the most responsible product we can.” 

Masha Zager is a New-York-based Apparel contributing writer specializing in business and technology.

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