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The processing stage of the fashion value chain contains untapped potential for achieving sustainable progress. Improvements in the efficient use of water and energy, in tandem with reducing the amount of hazardous chemicals released into the environment, can help brands and retailers make significant environmental, social and financial progress. Industry players have collaborated and invested in scaling efficiency programmes; however, many companies still have significant potential for improvement.

Lewis Perkins is President of the Apparel Impact Institute, which funds, scales and measures high-impact projects that improve the sustainability outcomes of the apparel and footwear industry. Lewis shares his perspective on scaling manufacturing practices in textile mills.

When I was appointed the inaugural president of the Apparel Impact Institute in 2018, I wasn’t just excited to lead a new industry organization. I was inspired by the opportunity to affect meaningful change with real impact.

The apparel and footwear industry has made incredible strides when it comes to the integration of more sustainable practices. Since I first started working in the apparel sector in 2012, I have seen increased conversation taking place among brands and consumers, but we all know that this industry has significant room for improvement in decreasing environmental impacts that contribute to climate change. Much of this happens in the manufacturing supply chain within textile mills.

The process of dyeing and finishing in mills is one of the most environmentally impactful segments of clothing production, because of the intense use of dyes and chemicals, burning of coal, release of greenhouse gas emissions and resulting wastewater. Unfortunately, the fact is that such impacts are most often outside of brands’ direct control. But this represents an enormous opportunity for brands to really engage with their suppliers – specifically, their mills – to align on the path toward improvement. This coordination results in reduced environmental footprint and increased efficiency in how these resources are used.

With the appropriate investment, resources, and partnerships in place, we want brands and mills to see that working together can result in greater efficiency overall.

The Apparel Impact Institute’s first initiative, Mill/impact, leverages the longstanding success of the Clean by Design (CbD) methodology and is deeply committed to mill improvement efforts. What we’re able to do is provide a collaborative, continuous improvement framework that builds upon CbD’s best practice methodology for mills of any size, type or location. The initial focus has been on programs that are designed to reduce energy, chemical and water use. Our most recent results demonstrated that participating mills have saved five million m3 of water and reduced 150,000 tons of CO2 emissions. These are substantial numbers that also resulted in USD20 million in cost savings, with a payback period of 12 months on initial investments. The case for engaging in mill improvement is there.

Could this be an overwhelming task for brands and mills to take on? Sure, but efficiency of resources really matters, and it is more than worth it, especially as brands start to take longer-term approaches to their business in the face of the current climate crisis. With the appropriate investment, resources and partnerships in place, we want brands and mills to see that working together can result in greater efficiency overall. This efficiency and ability to scale is not just achievable, but has proven, measurable impact. And, initial engagement of a facility or supplier can activate deeper environmental programs for increased positive impact.  
So what first step can brands take? Start with mapping the supply chain and identifying facilities to address. At the Apparel Impact Institute, we work with apparel and footwear brands that are committed to improvements in this segment of their business. The beauty of using a proven methodology (CbD) that is ready to scale globally is that we can work with brands and mills at any point in their sustainability journey while helping them reduce costs and create efficiencies. We ensure alignment of projects across multiple service providers, resulting in a fully collaborative effort. Here, collaboration means that brands can help other brands get involved through a consolidated recruitment effort in making mill improvement a global priority and step one in the roadmap to a carbon neutral supply chain.

Global Fashion Agenda has reached out to industry leaders to get their perspective on the priorities in the CEO Agenda and how to get closer to solutions. The think pieces are a reflection of their personal or organisation’s approach to the issues and do not necessarily state or reflect the opinions and views of Global Fashion Agenda and its Strategic Partners.