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From The Editor

The Sustainability Learning Curve

James M. Borneman

A recent American Apparel Producers' Network (AAPN) meeting in Miami Beach drew strong attendance and even stronger interaction. Why? Well, this group has never had a problem getting people talking, but with sustainability in the apparel supply chain as the main topic, they weren't just talking. There was a real effort among fiber producers, spinners, knitters, weavers, dyers, finishers, apparel producers, brands, retailers and allied services to understand their impact on not just the finished garment, but even the retail environment within which it is sold.

It is interesting to observe each link in the chain considering operations and services in terms of social, environmental and economic impact. One of the most enlightening observations is the lack of communication about what has already been accomplished. Many companies have undertaken improvements under the guise of increased efficiency, governmental compliance and lowering costs, while undervaluing the notion that those very projects increase the sustainability of their operations and add to the sustainability of the final product.

Who would have thought a brand or retailer would care that you installed a vacuum extractor prior to the tenter frame and it reduced natural gas usage and drying time? Or that you added T5 lighting on the plant floor and reduced power consumption and improved the work environment? Or that you installed a mile-long walking path around the facility so employees could get some exercise at lunch if they so choose? Or that you funded the repair of more than a hundred of your employees' children's cleft palates? Or that you have a program in a location where that typically isn't available to help your employees receive eye examinations and glasses?

In fact, there is a growing chorus of those who have a current interest in the extremely broad range of what makes operations more sustainable. Evaluating and improving current manufacturing processes is one component. Replacing processes with greener alternatives — moving to enzyme preparation or foam finishing, for example — is another. But being part of the process of sustainable product design approaches the pinnacle. Add the social component of your impact on employees and community, and you're getting even closer.

There will be many challenges ahead should sustainability become a key component in vendor selection, as some truly believe. There will be a new and abstract component of evaluation, and the question remains: Is a fair evaluation really possible? However, it is apparent that it will not be everyone's focus, and there will be buyers who still select low performers in this area because they have a financial reason to do so.

Regardless, it is also clear that in the majority of cases at this point in time, the consumer expects a certain level of quality, design and performance at a given price. He or she won't pay more for a sustainable product, but given the choice, will choose sustainable over standard products at the same price. So, the sustainable road ahead will be traveled, at a cost to each member of the chain—- hopefully in a way that pays back today's investment in a sustainable way.

May/June 2010