How Brands Can Really Make their Businesses Sustainable

Commitments to sustainability are no longer a niche practice in the footwear industry. In fact, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) counts more than 240 members in the apparel, textile and footwear industries, with total member revenues exceeding $500 billion.

While sustainability has become an important component of competitive business, brands are still only scratching the surface.

“Brands and retailers have some pretty big goals out there, but there are very few that set their goals within the context of what the world needs,” said Helen Sahi, VP of global corporate sustainability at Unifi, the textile solutions company.

Whereas much attention has been devoted to new recycled fabrics, the impact of using these textiles extends beyond repurposing plastic bottles; Unifi’s recycled fiber Repreve uses 45 percent less energy, 20 percent less water and a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gases versus virgin polyester production. For the brands and retailers seeking to implement sustainable practices at scale, these areas of environmental impact need to be considered, too.

To aid this, SAC introduced the Higg Index, a suite of tools that measure social and environmental sustainability performance across the production chain. From the carbon footprint of manufacturing facilities and a product’s individual environmental impact to companywide employee welfare, the Higg Index encourages a comprehensive sustainability assessment.

“We’ve seen just with the Higg Facility Environmental Module that facilities that measure these impacts year over year actually improve their performance over time,” said Amina Razvi, interim executive director of the SAC. “Using the Higg Index allows organizations to move away from compliance and toward driving performance improvement.”

The REPREVE Recycling Center in Yadkinville N.C.
The Repreve Recycling Center in Yadkinville, NC, is designed to reduce environmental impact throughout each production stage.
CREDIT: Repreve/Unifi

A number of companies have already begun to overhaul their approach to sustainability. Manufacturing corporation and SAC member Avery Dennison Corp. introduced a set of commitments in 2015, including a commitment that, by 2025, 70 percent of its products and solutions will be sustainable according to its guiding principles. Although recycled materials are a strong market for the company, Avery Dennison also offers RFID and blockchain tools to help its customers track their supply chains.

“We’re integrating our sustainability goals within all our operations and engaging employees at all levels,” said Mitch Butier, president and CEO of Avery Dennison, in a letter to stakeholders. “Across the company, we’re harnessing our core strengths, applying to sustainability the same creativity, determination and passion for problem-solving that we bring to our customers.”

While progress is occurring across the footwear industry, the SAC is still hoping for greater adoption of its tools in order to see demonstrated environmental impact reduction. Razvi noted the importance of scale in driving industrywide change; for many companies, sustainability is a helpful marketing hook to appeal to environmentally conscious shoppers, rather than a mission statement.

But these sustainably minded consumers are increasingly looking for evidence of ethical production and management from brands. Investing in eco-friendly initiatives — and publishing the results for public review — can be good for business, both in terms of revenue and reputation; textile companies A&E and Coats, and footwear brands Vans and Timberland, all share their sustainability journey and goals.

“We need to ask ourselves: How do we improve on what we’ve been doing in the past?” said Sahi. “It’s great that we’ve been doing better, but what we really need to ask is what the world needs us to do.”

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