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From The Editor
James M. Borneman, Editor In Chief

Balancing Textiles' Quest For Sustainability

James M. Borneman, Editor In Chief

R esearching sustainability puts one on an interesting quest. The word itself can be placed in front of almost any noun, and volumes of information can be produced — sustainable fisheries, agriculture, development, packaging, and on and on. This isn’t a negative, but clarity on the issue is difficult. Very quickly, however, it becomes apparent that the concept of sustainability is not new, that there are passionate leaders in the movement, and that there are misconceptions about to whom sustainability appeals.

Most agree that, at the core, sustainability includes a sense of balance between the societal, economic and environmental impacts of a process or activity. There is also an aspect regarding the impact of the process or activity as it takes place over time — will a resource be depleted rapidly?

It is the interaction of these impact areas — societal, economic and environmental — that starts most of the conversations, and some can get quite heated. When you bring the entire supply chain into the evaluation, it gets even fuzzier. Is it more sustainable to grow, gin, spin, weave and finish denim in a single state in the United States — say Texas — or to import denim made with organic cotton from a trans-Asian supply chain?

Add to the list that retailers are demanding sustainable supply chains in reaction to consumer expectations — expectations rather than demands because many feel that at the mass merchant level, consumers are probably not going to pay any more for sustainable products, but they expect sustainability to be part of the package.

In a way, this trend is reminiscent of the quality race of the 1980s. Today, quality is expected — as a friend once said, “Today, quality is the reason you lose an order, not get one.” This is not always the case, particularly if you can offer a demonstrable high level of quality as part of your brand, but don’t forget what Philip Crosby told us in 1979 — “Quality is Free.”

There is little doubt that sustainability will be at the top of many manufacturers’ to-do lists, and continuous improvement is part of the process; so don’t expect sustainability to be off the list anytime soon.

There will be similar opportunities for sustainability’s eco partners “green,” “organic” and “ environmentally friendly” to capture consumers’ attention — maybe even with increased margins in niche markets. Let’s hope that in the rush to capitalize on the trend, credibility is maintained. A green-marketed product that fails for one reason or another — carries unacceptable levels of residual chemicals, for example — could cause the consumer to call into question the value of all the green promises.

We can also expect more information and interaction on the issue. The AAPN networking meeting in Newport Beach promises to open the subject for discussion; and the SYFA/FSG Winter Conference — titled “Sustainable is Attainable: Redesigning the Textile Industry” —  features Interface Inc. Chairman Ray Anderson — a sustainability pioneer as well as a textile industry veteran.

It looks like “sustainable” will be one of 2008’s buzzwords, and who knows  —  looking back from the year 2020, we may have learned  “Sustainability is Free.”

January/February 2008