Esprit was planning its move towards sustainable fashion with its new collection when it was named by five Chinese environmental groups as one of the 48 global fashion brands using polluting factories (read about that here). The timing was unfortunate. Esprit has since communicated with the Green Choice Alliance who are reportedly pleased with Esprit’s response and launched its new collection : The “Recycled Collection by Esprit”.
The collection featuring stylish T-shirts and denim wear was made from its own manufacturing cut-offs in a drive to reduce textile waste, in turn reducing water and energy use and carbon emissions. China Water Risk talks to Margaret Kutt, [Manager for Sustainable Projects] about the challenges behind the collection, how it saves water and what they are doing to protect brand value against rising NGO pressure.
MK: Esprit would like to become one of the most sustainable brands in the market. By creating this collection, we were able to pool our entire CSR agenda in it – starting from new fabrics and fresh design ideas to a certified and transparent supply chain, ending with a marketing campaign called “we care what you wear!”
Keeping our consumers informed was important for us, as many don’t realize the amount of textile material wasted on the cutting table. Recycling this cutting table waste and designing a collection from it is therefore an effective and responsible way to manage the waste.
Not only is textile waste an inexhaustible and readily available source for us, but by not using new material, we save water and energy put into making these materials, and of course we are also cutting down on waste. The two areas where we generate substantial amounts of waste in a recyclable fibre is cotton denim and cotton jersey – hence the focus on cotton and denim lines. Also, by using our own waste, we are assured that its quality is in line with our standards and that we can adhere to our Restricted Substance Lists (RSLs)
CWR: How have your consumers responded?
MK: The collection has done extremely well. It has outperformed our regular product in the stores and we have no doubt in our minds that this is a strong and unique selling point for our customers.
CWR: What steps have you taken to keep the integrity and traceability of this clothing line?
MK: We know using waste saves water and energy but that was not good enough; we wanted to know exactly how much we saved and have had third parties verify and validate our supply chain. By supporting Redress in the establishment of the R certificate, users can be assured that the product bought has at least 30% of recycled content. We also had our supply chain certified by Control Union and on top of that carried out a carbon foot printing audit on specific garments in the line with Reset Carbon.
Our audit showed us just how much water we were saving by not dyeing the T shirt fabric. By collecting our waste by color groups we were able to define the color of the end product, without re dyeing anything. We added undyed white recycled polyester and produced a fabric comprising 35% recycled cotton and 65% recycled polyester, our water saving in the entire process comprised 74% when compared to a regular fabric dyed t shirt, it’s an enormous saving by any account and one we will continue to duplicate for future collections
We are now developing a denim fabric with a higher recycled content than previously, as well as working on washes and finishes that need much less water, we will conduct another audit on that once we have fine-tuned the processes and are able to reproduce them at scale.
CWR: The press release describes the collection as “It’s fashionable. It’s sustainable. It’s the future.” Is the collection only offered in HK? And do you have plans for more of these collections or is this a one-off?
MK: Our first collection is only being offered in HK – a case study if you will; to make sure it works. But now that we have seen to what extent we can influence our water and power consumption, and reduce our GHG emissions, we want to expand the line. In the future it will be offered in China and selected countries in the Asia-Pacific region. We intend to grow it slowly to make sure we can keep up with the certification and overall integrity of our supply chain. Our ultimate goal is to create a global collection and retail it around the world. But to do that we have to make sure we are ready and able to support it on every front – from design through to sourcing, retail and marketing. It’s a big undertaking and a real collaborative effort but we hope to get there.
CWR: We have just talked about water efficiency – what about water pollution allegations from environmentalists on ground in China? What steps have you taken if any to address these? Will you be/ are you using IPE’s database? Can you walk us through some internal control steps implemented?
The timing of the report was unfortunate because the development of our sustainable line has been 18 months in the making and was well underway when it appeared and I would like to stress that our recycled line is not and was not a reaction to it.
We have since approached the 2 vendors cited in the IPE database and they have assured us that they are addressing the issues mentioned in the report. Our response has been well received and we will revisit the issue with them in due course. We have also opened a dialogue with IPE and now use the IPE database along with our own compliance audits to ensure vendors are environmentally and socially compliant. In addition to consulting IPE database we also have and have always had our own internal and very extensive RSL list which follows EU and International norms for the most part but is also much stricter in some cases especially when it comes certain toxic dye stuffs, curing agents and preservatives.
CWR: We have spoken with manufacturers and brands and it appears that there is a disconnect. Departments within a brand whose job is to protect the reputation of a brand are not the ones on ground sourcing. Those sourcing are mainly just focused on and incentivized by price and not whether the factories are polluting or the companies’ sustainability policies. Is this happening in the industry? If so, is the solution a matter of aligning incentives or is it a bigger problem that requires fundamental change?
MK: It would appear that in many cases that is the norm, however at Esprit there is much less of a disconnect, simply because quality, sustainability and sourcing share a common reporting line. Our compliance dept has the power to set up and shut down vendors. Furthermore, compliance and sourcing are co located, they operate from the same floor and interact constantly. We believe that the solution is to set up a protocol that vendors must adhere to; the difficulty is enforcement and auditing.
CWR: Do you have a corporate water philosophy? Do you have plans to commit to zero-liquid discharge (ZLD) by 2020 like Nike, Puma, Adidas and H&M?
We do not currently have an official corporate water philosophy. We are however exploring a way forward to reduce our water footprint including, continued supply chain management, ZLD and clothes with recycled content. We do have a strong CSR ethic and as part of this, are amongst the founding circle members of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC). The SAC is currently compiling a Sustainable Apparel Index, which upon completion; we fully intend to use to bring about environmental and social performance in our supply chain.
Another initiative we are working on : I:CO is a project we are piloting in Germany and Austria at the moment, it is a garment and shoe take back program which will kick start our efforts to deal with “end of life waste”. Old Esprit clothes and shoes can be brought back and deposited in special collection bins, the receptacle issues a discount voucher for the customer. The clothes and shoes are then collected, sorted and recycled by a recycling company that repurposes them into industrial products such as cleaning cloths, carpet underlay, insulation and textile fibres. This is an example of an initiative we would like to pursue and expand globally once we have found the right partners.
CWR: Clothes have gotten cheaper whilst the price of mostly everything else has gone up with inflation. Stakeholders have in the past benefited from the high turnover volumes of fast-fashion at the expense of the environment. But given water scarcity, pollution and the increased threat of reputation loss can stakeholders/ investors continue to ignore water risks or perceived social injustice of using up a scarce resource? Is this the turning point for the industry?
MK: This is most definitely a turning point for our industry, the China boom is over, costs are increasing, environmental and social issues are becoming more poignant and generally there is a realignment in sourcing strategies for big companies and various programs to consolidate their supply chains, within this framework it is impossible to ignore the strain on resources and makes it imperative to make sustainable choices. Consumer awareness has also reached a point where no sizeable company can ignore the sustainability of their business model.
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