Eco-Factory in Sri Lanka: The Cutting Edge of Green Manufacturing

Source: CS Monitor, courtesy of MAS eco-factory Depicts a rendering of the lingerie factory in Sri Lanka (now complete) runs on renewable energy and employs 45,000 workers.

CS Monitor announced last week the completion if the first ever eco-sustainable apparel factory in Sri Lanka. Built with evaporative cooling technology, solar panels and hydro power, the factory is the first of its kind in Asia (and perhaps even worldwide), setting a new standard in apparel manufacturing.

One problem with organic and sustainable garments today is that the fabrics may be green, but so often the manufacturing is anything but (not to mention a majority are still made in sweatshop conditions). The MAS factory solves this problem by greenifying HOW the clothes are made and dramatically reducing the carbon footprint of that part of the process.

With energy-efficient task lighting, low-emission permitting glass (which cuts down on heat transfer), and traditional applications such as courtyard design and tree plantings, the factory is an oasis of low carbon production amidst an industry of profuse waste (e.g. see Cambodian garment factory dumping its refuse in its backyard for passersby to scourge for materials).

Costing 25% more than the average garment factory, the MAS plant will cut and sew lingerie for a number of labels. So far according to the authors, there isn’t a mass retail company out there yet that has developed a full sustainability standard that accounts for the garment across every step of production.

We have the organic certification, but so often that is for the fabric itself and may exclude steps in the production process that occur after the certification. Furthermore, carbon footprint is not a factor separately considered in that certification process. For example, a garment may be made with organically grown cotton, but if coal-fired boilers and poor treatment of waste- water or toxic dyes are used later on, then the garment ultimately has a huge carbon footprint and potentially damaging effects on the environment.

As Linda Greer, a Natural Resources Defense Council senior scientist who specializes in toxic chemical pollution in textiles production notes,

‘true sustainability requires independent certification, extensive consumer-education campaigns, and a desire and ability to review entire supply chains.’

I could not agree this statement more. With certification we move toward a more informed consumer base as well as regulated supplier market, and move away from haphazard ‘green and socially responsible’ labeling with little meaning.

We all know that green-ification of goods costs more and without the strict certification and labeling in place and high levels of consumer awareness, it is very difficult to justify those additional costs. So the question is, how is it that a company like MAS is able to afford and/or justify such a substantial up-front investment?

According to the author, ‘economies of scale is one answer’ but in addition, MAS will arguably save money in the long (and even short run) in energy costs. Furthermore, by being the first to commit at this level, they will gain credibility and loyalty among consumers who are increasingly Green and socially conscious.

Just as Gary Hirshberg, CE-Yo of Stonyfield Farms, reflects in his new book ‘Stirring it Up,’ nearly all of the green decisions he and his company made in its 25 year history proved economical and beneficial for the business in the long run. I might add, in an era of rising fuel costs, how can sustainable, energy efficient architecture and systems not be beneficial? By leveraging energy efficient solutions such as solar, hydro and other technologies, MAS will be ahead of the pack in less than a few years if energy prices continue on their current track.

See CS Monitor for more information.

Nau: A company Ahead of its Time?

Photosource: grooveygreen.com featuring Nau clothing

NY Times Fashion & Style section announced this morning that the much coveted Nau is going out of business. Sundance Channel did a piece on them this week too in their ‘Big Ideas for a Small Planet’ which I blogged about on May 3rd. Unfortunately Nau’s website posts the sad letter from the team stating that that they are ‘saying goodby for Nau’.

While we knew the company took on significant risk, and that there were questions from the beginning as to whether the model would actually work, I must admit that I increasingly felt confident in the staying power of their brand. I’ve been reading about Nau since last September, and just last month a half dozen people I knew asked me if I had heard about this company. They successfully seem to be generating ‘buzz’ around their company.

Yet at the same time, significant investment went into the company – from its design and manufacture of high tech ‘green’ fabrics to designing and sewing the clothes, to building brick and mortar stores and creating a cutting edge website. Unlike the mom and pop online green boutiques, Nau was positioned as the next Nike from the get go. One reviewer I read last fall noted correctly that the company is postured to either succeed beautifully or fail miserably. Unfortunately, it seems that the latter has won out.

Why? Led by former Nike executives, the Nau team is not lacking in the experience, leadership or management arena. While they are ‘green’ in the environmental sense, management wise, this is not the case. So what is it? According to the team, the economy is cited as the main factor in their decline. Slowing consumption, rising fuel costs, rising cost of goods, decreasing purchases….we have heard it more than once in the last few months. So while I agree that the economy is forcing more than a handful of retailers to change course and downsize, I would also venture to say that a few other things could have been done to help stay afloat. (1) One is that their prices seemed high for what they offered and for who they targeted. While I can absolutely appreciate their stylistic, very green apparel, Americans may not be quite ready for those prices at to buy on the green principle as such. Take a look at Cheapest Dress in the World – with expectations as low as $8.98, can we stretch our imaginations to pay $300 for a spring coat?
(2) Color schemes and styles may have been too muted. Everything seemed a bit too dark. Not enough brightness, freshness and newness. Or maybe they were not geared toward women as much as men? I am not sure, but something seemed slightly off. (3) Finally, with REI and Patagonia ‘down the street’ so to speak, or one ‘url tab’ away on the Internet, one has to have a pretty compelling reason to go to Nau rather than long-established, trusted brands. Both of these companies are increasingly stepping out of the pure outdoor gear space and into more fashion-forward ‘office-adaptable’ clothing as well as are increasingly ‘green.’

Also, Nau mentioned that their stores encouraged people to ship whatever products they purchase to their homes rather than carry away with them. I would have to say that this seems troublesome. Counterintuitive from every angle. Isn’t one satisfaction from shopping the ability to carry the item home with you and brighten your day? Also, isn’t walking home with something intuitively more ‘green’ than having it shipped to your house? From a consumers standpoint, I can see how this policy would be troublesome.

All in all however, I must say that I am sorry to see Nau go. I really admired their mission, vision and core company principles. Part of me thinks they may be jumping the gun—who knows what could have been possible if they road the wave a little longer? At the same time, in this economy nothing is certain, and if product, price and promotion are slightly off mark, well, there is not much hope for survival. Wishing the team at Nau all the best in their next venture.

Send me your comments to greencottonblog@gmail.com or post below.

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The Cheapest Dress is the World ($8.98): Part II


Photo source: Keetsa.com

For the first part of this post see Part I. This post is in response to last week’s NY Times Style section article on the world’s cheapest dress.

So lets take a closer look at the first 10 miles of apparel production. For a garment to be sold at a price as low as $8.98 – guess what the fabric had to cost per yard before dying – a heck of a lot cheaper than that! Probably less than a dollar per yard. Furthermore, we must also think about how many pesticides were spilled into waterways and the food chain as a result of the cotton grown. In addition, how many children were employed to pick that cotton or spray the pesticides? How many laborers were paid insufficient wages and make the fabric and what kinds of dyes were used? For more information on the real costs of cotton, see White Gold: the true costs of cotton production.

I was at a trade show recently in Las Vegas recently and stopped by the sourcing section to talk to some vendors and visit with sustainable designers. As it turns out, organic fabrics cost anywhere from $11 to $50 per yard. Some online retailers and wholesalers are available at Harmony Art and Near Sea Naturals so you can see for yourself. This is a big difference between conventional! No wonder few retailers are talking about moving in this direction in a big way.

Yet at the same time, organic cotton follows a bare minimum of environmental and social standards to ensure resource management and human rights compliance. Furthermore, as certified organic fabrics, they meet a whole set of criteria at every step in the production process – that ensures they are good for the environment and good for you. For more on differences, see Organic v.s Conventional.

These fabrics cost more because guess what? It costs more to make a good product. Don’t be fooled by cheap prices. There is definitely something to be said for economies of scale and just-in-time inventory, but there is a limit to how low one can go with out sacrificing the environment or humanity along the way.

In general, higher priced organic cotton reflects the TRUE cost of producing materials in alignment with environmental conservation and sustainability. Furthermore, the natural resources used and conserved in the process arguably last longer – so the good news is we can be ‘buying dresses’ for a lot longer! Plus, we will have less contaminated waterways and ecosystems and our great grandchildren may actually live to see some still thriving elements of our natural world.

Be a smart consumer. Ask questions and be aware of supply chain steps and demand that your clothing fair, environmentally smart, good for you & the world. You know something is wrong when 2 lattes cost more than the dress you are wearing (thanks to Steve Allen’s comment).

Remember: we vote with our wallets. The checkout line is the biggest voting machine in America, and in the world actually. So, next time you are at the check out line, ask yourself, could this really be this cheap? If your honest answer to yourself is no, then don’t buy it! I know its tempting to buy cheap goods, but if you don’t need it and can’t afford the ‘smarter’ one, simply don’t get it.

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The Cheapest Dress is the World ($8.98): Part I

Photosource: Tony Cenicola for The New York Times

Maybe you read the article this week in the NY Times Style section on Steve & Barry’s incredibly low prices such as the $8.98 Sarah Jessica Parker dress?

Well even if not, the story raises some very interesting and important issues. I must admit, that after reading the article, I was left feeling a bit depressed and confused.

What is missing from this model? How can a dress of this caliber (e.g., designed by Sarah Jessica Parker, who obviously gets a cut from each garment) sell for $8.98 and STILL make a profit for Steve & Barry? What is missing from the economic model? Is this a classic case of market externalities in which there are a number of negative costs spilled out into the marketplace and more broadly into our environment that somehow get absorbed elsewhere now or in the future? Where are these additional costs getting absorbed? (and by the way, Steve & Barry’s is not the only company that can get clothing so cheap to make one’s eye’s pop – see also, Forever 21, Wal-Mart, Target).

What bothered me the most however is the fact that the company’s executives declared ‘ absolutely not’ to the notion that their clothes are made under sweatshop conditions. In fact, the management states openly that they ‘monitor [their] subcontractors carefully and demand ethical business practices,’ which I do not doubt. I bet they are telling the truth and that their subcontractors are complying with whatever local laws they need to comply with. So where is the missing link in this puzzle?

Having delved into the issues of organic and fair trade clothing production for quite some time now, I have a few conclusions and questions.

(1) When Steve & Barry and others talk about ethical business compliance, are they speaking to a very specific context: e.g., the country in which they are manufacturing the clothing under their subcontractor’s jurisdiction or international fair labor laws? I would fathom to say the later. For example, when a company declares they are compliant – that is with the local labor laws in whichever developing or other country they are subcontracting to (eg Kenya or China). If a subcontracted factory is either of those two mentioned countries (which we know they often are), we can be assured that human rights compliance, fair labor law enforcement and environmental stewardship is minimal to zilch. So the question: whose laws are we/they complying with? What is certain however is that companies like Steve & Barry’s are not member certified by accredited Fair Trade monitoring bodies such as the Fair Trade Federation and/or the European Fair Trade Labeling Organization (FLO). If they were, they would publicize that. We do know that these organizations set forth established criteria for fair wages and labor requirements in tune with international humanitarian standards, so if that standard is met –we can be assured some level of transparency. If not, then who knows? It’s a bit of a big black box.

(2) The last mile. Secondly, the other gaping hole appears to be in what I would like to term the ‘last mile’ of retail. This ‘last mile in the supply chain train’ is the point at which a majority of major brands and retailers step into the picture. This is where accountability begins and consumer awareness starts. But what about the first ten miles? What happens there? Do we even know? What sorts of compliance measures have been put in place, what environmental and social accountability exists – who is doing what and how is it done?

It may be fair to say that a majority of major American brands are primarily responsible for the ‘last mile of production and branding’ in the apparel industry, and not necessarily part of (nor want to be) privy to earlier steps in the supply chain. This has advantages for retailers and disadvantages for consumers. When it comes to accountability, who wants to be responsible for production starting with cotton growing, when you can take responsibility for just the last stitch on the cloth? By the way, there is a reason why less than 5% of global cotton production is organic. No one wants to take responsibility for the environment that much. This is one of the key reasons why the garments can get as cheap as they are, e.g., $8.98. Importantly, organic certification itself includes compliance with fair labor practices, so by gaining that certification, one also tackles the other issue simultaneously. But guess what – the demand starts with us – consumers. If we become more aware and we demand it, they will do it. We need to be better informed. Furthermore, as more and more companies take on this socio-enviro responsibility, the fabrics will get less expensive. Its that simple – but we must demand it.

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Stay tuned for Part II….coming soon!

Channel Tackles Environmental Justice: The Good Fight

Image source: Sundance Channel

Sundance Channel is now launching a new series on environmental justice called ‘The Good Fight’. They are calling for all local stories on what people are doing in their area to address environmental issues. I just entered my story on their site under the name of Jute & Jackfruit at http://www.sundancechannel.com/ecommunity/#/ecommunityMap//

I encourage you to enter your story too onto their community map. Check out what other people are doing across the country. Be a part of the change.

They also had a few interesting video clips on their site. I am personally not a big TV person, but am partial to video clips on the web, so if you have a moment, worth checking out some of their ‘green-oriented’ programs.

FYI there is also an upcoming episode on the greening of fashion, “Big Ideas for a Small Planet: Fashion” Tuesday, May 6th. 9:00pm e/p

Summary of that program: Environmental consciousness has hit the fashion world in a big way; from T-shirts and jeans to haute couture, style is coming to mean sustainable fabric and earth-friendly manufacturing practices. In this episode, we’ll meet several men and women who are bringing green to fashion, clothing stores and to the dry cleaners, too.

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