The Path to Sustainability: Some Examples of Going in the Right Direction

The Magazine: Apparel Sourcing Article

July 27, 2010

The Path to Sustainability: Some Examples of Going in the Right Direction

by Marci Zaroff and Kilara Little

The 'green movement' has more momentum today than ever and continues to evolve rapidly across all industries, especially in textiles and apparel.  Companywide sustainability strategies are an opportunity to drive innovation, inspiration and value for all stakeholders. Strategic goals, once defined, can work in tandem with "standing for something". Did you ever stop to think about the ubiquity of the textile industry? Apparel, footwear, home, and textile products are in close proximity at all times to most of the world’s consumers. People wear clothes on their backs, shoes on their feet; sit in chairs all day, drive cars with textile composites, sleep on mattresses and sheets at night. They even drink out of plastic soda bottles, which is the main source of recycled polyester.

It is time to close more of these "loops", and by working smarter, everybody benefits. There is so much potential to bring the greener products that consumers want into all aspects of their lives. Here are some examples of companies who are working toward sustainability in their daily operations and future initiatives.

One company who is listening to this trend is Unifi with their Repreve® yarn. This large yarn manufacturer is based in Greensboro NC with facilities in El Salvador and is a leading producer in the creation of recycled polyester yarn.  While Unifi has been processing recycled polyester pellets for years, they have recently announced plans to build a new facility to start with the true raw material – polyester bottles.  Clear plastic water and beverage bottles will be shredded and processed and extruded into fiber and yarn. It takes 27 water bottles to make a t-shirt.  Ironically, there is, so far, little market for yarn made from the green colored bottles as they already have some color.  As demand for recycled products continues to grow, the issue of authenticity becomes bigger. How can you tell if a product really does have recycled content? In order to use the Repreve® logo and marketing information, products must have a minimum of 30% Repreve® in them. Unifi is able to test products to verify that they have this minimum content as they add a “marker” during the manufacturing of the fiber. 

The tragedy of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a great analogy to a larger “gulf”. This is the chasm between traditional business practices and triple bottom line (profitability, social responsibility, environmental sustainability) business practices with a limit to which their morality can be pushed.  The triple bottom line is fast becoming the “new normal” way of doing business. One company who has been asking themselves how they can help to improve the lives of their employees, and then doing it, is Rocedes manufacturing company in Nicaragua.

On the social side of sustainability, Rocedes has quite a few initiatives to improve the lives of employees, their families and the community at large.  As many manufacturers do these days, they ensure that employees and their families have access to medical and dental care, and offer education classes. They also sponsor childcare for children of employees, buy school supplies and basic food in bulk and sell them to employees at a discount. Every year they throw a community children’s party with clowns and piñatas. In the community at large, a local girls’ orphanage receives sponsorship from Rocedes, as does a program that provides reconstructive surgery for children born with cleft palates. They have even teamed up with Habitat for Humanity to build houses for employees with families.

TS Designs is a printing and dyeing company in Burlington NC is that has made a commitment to the environment in a big way. Their printing, dyeing and finishing processes are Oeko-tex certified and much of their power is generated on-site from solar and wind power.  Employees can choose to spend some time in the company garden and get to take home vegetables; they have even introduced chickens that produce eggs for employees.  A conference room is also used by a community college to teach a class and there is a biodiesel pump on the premises, part of a local co-op. In the last couple of years, TS Designs has taken the idea of local a step further and created a cotton t-shirt that only travels 750 miles from “dirt to shirt”, called “Cotton of the Carolinas.” By teaming up with a local farmer, spinner, knitter and cut and sew operation, they are able to take advantage of North Carolina’s status as the 4th largest grower of cotton in the US and their customers’ interest in locally produced products.

The path to sustainability has many twists and turns and side roads. Initiatives taken by individuals and companies can be large or small, as every step matters. The sound of the beating wings of a single butterfly are impossible to hear.  However, en mass, such as when the monarch butterflies gather in the millions in the state of Michoacán, Mexico, the sound of their wings beating is clearly audible. The combined initiatives of each step in the supply chain can make a big impact toward creating a future in which the next generation, who is very eco-aware, can continue to enjoy the planet. By thinking smarter, profits, people and the planet can all thrive.


This article was published in The Magazine: Apparel Sourcing, and can also be found at