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Going Green: Beyond Marketing Hype

Marketers of environmentally responsible products must be able to substantiate their claims in a way that consumers can understand.

Janet Bealer Rodie, Associate Editor

T he increasing focus on the well-being of planet Earth has engendered concerns about what effects many products might have on the health of consumers and the planet alike, as well as new expectations with regard to what goes into the making of those products. Consumers are making it known that they want products that do not have deleterious effects on the environment, in their making or their use or their disposal. Partly in response to these expectations, partly out of their own sense of responsibility, and partly out of a realization that it is economically beneficial to do so, certain manufacturers are taking steps to reduce the environmental impacts of their products; and they want to make sure consumers know about their efforts. Other manufacturers are looking for aspects of their products that they can market with any sort of environmentally friendly association - whether there is a clear connection or not - in a "greenwashing" effort to leverage the current eco-sensitivity to their advantage.

As a result, the consumer is receiving messages left and right touting products' environmental integrity. Marketing materials are full of words such as "green," "eco-friendly," "sustainable," "renewable," "recyclable," "organic" and a host of other related terms. The claims may not always provide a clear picture of the product's true environmental impact because the terms may be used in such a general way as to have no certifiable meaning but rather convey simply an idea of environmental responsibility; or they may relate to one aspect of a product - for example, a 100-percent organic cotton garment - while another is clearly not environmentally friendly - that garment has been dyed using toxic dyes in a process that pollutes the river into which the plant releases its effluent. If marketing claims cannot be substantiated or are not qualified, or if they are shown to be deceptive or misleading, that greenwashing has the potential to cause consumers to become skeptical or, worse, tune out the message altogether when valid claims are made for other products.

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Outdoor apparel marketer Patagonia’s Common Threads Recycling Program takes back worn out Capilene® base layers and other used clothing to recycle into new garments.
Photo courtesy of Patagonia Inc.


FTC Green Guides

In a move to address green marketing issues, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) developed its "Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims," also known as the Green Guides, to provide a framework for voluntary compliance with FTC regulations related to environmental marketing and advertising practices. First published in 1992, the guides were last reviewed in 1998. With the recent onslaught of green marketing claims, particularly with regard to textiles and building, the FTC is now considering further revisions, and over the past year has held a series of workshops to educate the public about the various issues surrounding such claims and receive input to help it in making the revisions.

The general principles set out in the original Green Guides apply to all green marketing claims and stipulate that these claims, whether specific or implied, must be substantiated or qualified in a way that consumers can understand. The guides also provide examples of general and specific claims to illustrate comparative degrees of clarity or accuracy.

The textile-related portion of the FTC's workshop titled "Eco in the Market - Green Building and Textiles," held in July of this year, brought together representatives of Organic Exchange, Cotton Incorporated, North Carolina State University, US Customs and Border Protection, the Organic Trade Association (OTA), outdoor apparel marketer Patagonia® Inc., The Good Housekeeping Research Institute and Consumer Reports to share their knowledge and ideas about what is and isn't green and propose parameters for FTC guidance regarding marketing and labeling of green textiles.

Degrees Of Green

As was pointed out at the FTC workshop, there are varying degrees of green in different textile products. In some, the materials used may be green, but the manufacturing process may not be, or vice versa; and marketers need to be clear as to which aspect of a product a green claim applies. For example, the National Organic Program stipulates that a textile containing a blend of organic cotton and another material, such as spandex or nylon, must state all of the components and not just the cotton content.

As another example, one also must be careful when making claims for a product that contains a blend of organic, biodegradable cotton and recycled polyester in a single textile article. While each fiber may be sustainable on its own, another issue crops up when they are combined either in a single yarn or as separate yarns woven into one fabric: It can't completely biodegrade because of the polyester content, and it can't be recycled in a cradle-to-cradle polymerization process because of the cotton content. It could be cut into strips and used in another textile, say, a rag rug, or repurposed in some other way, but it still will eventually enter a noncompostable waste stream. In such a case, the green credentials of the materials can be touted, but biodegradability or recyclability claims could not be made for the end product unless the two materials can be separated to go into the relevant downstream processes.

As another, not entirely unrelated, issue, can the same performance claims be made for a regenerated cellulosic fiber as for the raw fiber from which it is derived? This question has come up in the case of bamboo, a renewable, fast-growing resource that needs little water and no pesticides for its cultivation. The raw fiber has antimicrobial and moisture-transport performance properties, and these properties are claimed for many of the apparel products currently offered on the market. But, according to workshop presenter Dr. Peter Hauser, NCSU, while these properties are retained in bamboo that has been processed mechanically similarly to the processing of flax into linen, it is unclear that they are retained in the more commonly used regenerated solvent-spun fiber, which is essentially either a rayon fiber - whose chemical-laden processing raises environmental issues - or a lyocell fiber - which is made using a recoverable and reusable solvent in a sustainable closed-loop process. Hauser stressed the need for scientific peer-reviewed documentation of any claims regarding fiber performance. His call was backed up by presenters Kathleen Huddy, The Good Housekeeping Research Institute, and Pat Slaven, Consumer Reports.

Third-Party Certification

Companies may have their textile products and processes evaluated and certified for their environmental integrity by a third-party agency such as MBDC; Switzerland-based International Oeko-Tex Association; Switzerland-based bluesign technologies ag; the International Working Group of Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), a group comprised of OTA and three other associations promoting the use of organic raw materials; and other agencies. Such certifications serve to assure consumers that green marketing claims made for those products are valid.

The Oeko-Tex® Standard 100 certifies that textiles from raw materials through end product comply with prohibitions and regulations regarding the presence of harmful substances, as well as with criteria related to substances known to be harmful to human health but not yet regulated, and with other parameters related to colorfastness and pH value. Oeko-Tex also offers a Standard 1000 to certify compliance by manufacturing plant operations with environmentally responsible production parameters.

MBDC's Cradle to Cradle Design Protocol and the bluesign® standard encompass, each in one certification, the entire supply chain and all manufacturing processes that go into a product. All materials going into a product - fibers, yarns, dyes, chemicals and other components - plus manufacturing parameters - energy and resource usage, wastewater management, plant emissions, employee health and safety, and other parameters - are evaluated, and products are certified at set levels based on the degree of optimization. Both organizations work with clients to help them design out of their products substances and practices that are harmful to the environment and human health, and incorporate the most environmentally beneficial alternatives and solutions possible.

GOTS encompasses the production, processing, manufacturing, packaging, labeling and logistics-related aspects of organic textiles from fiber through end product. Certified products may be labeled in one of two ways: "organic" or "organic - in conversion," for products containing at least 95-percent certified organic or in-conversion fibers; and "made with x-percent organic materials" or "made with x-percent organic - in conversion materials," for products containing 70- to 95-percent or more certified organic or in-conversion fibers.

Transparency Is Key

Ventura, Calif.-based Patagonia has long been committed to environmentalism, from its sensitivity to the impact of its products on the environment and its commitment to foster the well-being of the people producing them as well as its direct employees; to building its own solar collection system to help power its headquarters and implementing other earth-friendly measures in Ventura and at its LEED-certified distribution center in Reno, Nevada; establishing a garment-recycling program to take back worn garments for reprocessing into new ones; and giving back a percentage of its profits to environmental causes; among other measures. The company's website offers extensive information about its environmental commitment, including analyses of the environmental footprints of a number of its products.

In order to promote its eco-textile program, Patagonia labels products with a green E when they contain at least one-third by weight of what it considers environmentally friendly fibers. The company also includes additional information about the labeling in its stores and catalogs.  The fibers that qualify for this designation include organic cotton, hemp, chlorine-free wool, recycled polyester, recycled nylon and Tencel®.

In 2007, Patagonia became the first brand globally to become a member of the bluesign standard. As a brand member, it has committed to promote implementation of the bluesign standard throughout its supply chain.

Rob BonDurant, Patagonia's vice president of marketing, speaks to the need for transparency in green marketing: "If green marketing is a first step for a company, we believe it's a good first step in the right direction. Eventually, customers are going to want to know the specifics behind a company's green marketing claims - and companies will be either inspired or literally driven towards making changes in the way they do business. At Patagonia, we believe that transparency is key. Corporate honesty begets customer loyalty. When a customer knows they can come to you to learn about where your product came from, who made it and what it's made of - everybody wins."


What Is Green?

Green connotes the general idea that a product or a process is beneficial to, or at least has minimal impact on, the environment with regard to energy, resource and raw material usage; greenhouse gas and toxic emissions; and/or waste generation. It often is interchangeable with environmentally friendly, eco-friendly and other general terms.

Sustainable is a broader term that encompasses not only the environment, but also economic and social equity considerations. A sustainable product has minimal impact on the environment in that harvesting or resource usage does not deplete or permanently damage the resource; plus, it can be produced in an economically viable way and it is produced with consideration for the welfare of employees and others impacted by the production.

Cradle-to-cradle refers to a regenerative life cycle in which no material making up a product becomes waste because noncompatible materials in the product can be separated and all can be recycled and reused for the same purpose as the original virgin material. This is in contrast to a cradle-to-grave product that cannot be recycled and ends up in a landfill at the end of its useful life, or a cradle-to-gate product whose environmental footprint has been calculated from raw material acquisition through the manufacturing process.

The term "cradle to cradle" was coined by Charlottesville, Va.-based McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry LLC (MBDC), a design consultancy that advises companies in the area of what it calls eco-effective product design, taking into account all aspects of production and material use. MBDC also is a third-party certifier, using its Cradle to Cradle Design Protocol to assess materials and processes according to environmental and human health criteria.

As noted elsewhere, there are numerous other terms as well that are used in describing a product's and process's environmental integrity or function.


The Greening Of The Cotton Supply Chain

A video produced by Cotton Incorporated examines new processing technologies that are significantly improving the sustainability of the entire supply chain for cotton products. While cotton cultivation practices have improved vastly in recent years, including the development of varieties that have increased yields and require far less chemical and water input, new dyeing and finishing technologies also require fewer chemicals and consume less energy and water while also releasing cleaner effluent. Process technologies highlighted include new enzymes and ozone technologies that replace harsh chemicals in fabric finishing, very low-moisture foam dyeing technologies, waste- and solvent-eliminating digital printing technologies, low-salt reactive dyes, bleaching processes that drastically reduce water and energy use, and technologies that combine dyeing and finishing in one step, among other technologies. The video also presents the point of view of respected retailers who expect
manufacturers to implement these new green technologies as a prerequisite to a continuing business relationship.

The video, "Textiles: The Sustainability Revolution," can be viewed at www.textileworld.com/video/cotton.html

November/December 2008

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