Sustainable Textiles Benefit Businesses, Consumers

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COLUMBIA - Textile businesses can benefit greatly from running sustainable operations.

"Eventually you can reduce your [company] costs if you're more sustainable, you're benefiting the environment, you're benefiting consumers, and it'll keep your business afloat too if you can make your products sustainable," said Marie D'Avignon, a Government Relations Representative for the American Apparel and Footwear Association.

These benefits have many companies, like Target, Nike and Levi's practicing sustainable operations. And industry observers say most companies live up to these claims. Some, however, may be taking advantage of consumers' increasing interest in environmentally-friendly products.

"They know that sustainability is a big thing in consumers' minds, so by claiming that their product is more sustainable than competitor's products, they're trying to take advantage of quick sales," said Jung Ha-Brookshire, an Assistant Professor of Textile and Apparel Management at the University of Missouri.

Ha-Brookshire recently helped to organize a summit to discuss the issue of apparel companies using marketing tactics playing to consumers' desire for more sustainable products.

She spoke of one example where companies played up a product's sustanability appeal back when bamboo was a popular material to use because consumers saw it as automatically being better, simply because it was a natural material.

"In 2010, the Federal Trade Commission came out and said all textile products that say '100% bamboo and anti-microbial properties' had to be relabeled with a sticker on top that says it's 100% rayon from bamboo, and the antimicrobial property hasn't been proven. It has it when it's [a bamboo stalk], but once it's a bamboo fiber, it's been transformed into a rayon, which is a man-made fiber, the anti-microbial property is expected to be gone. But when bamboo was so hot, a lot of consumers bought a lot of socks, made with bamboo rayon, paid 3, 4 or 5 times more money, when in fact rayon is the cheapest fiber you can find," said Ha-Brookshire.   

Unclear labeling can be misleading and make it difficult for a consumer to know just how sustainable a particular product is. A recent consumer perception study done by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) showed these claims make consumers more likely to believe these products have a larger environmental and social impact. 

This problem is something the FTC intends to stop with its newly revised "Green Guides". The guides simply advise marketers and have no enforcement power.

The new revisions include:

- Disacouraging marketers from making broad claims about their products, simply labeling them as "green" or "environmentally friendly". 

- Encouraging marketers to have scientific evidence to back claims about carbon offsets, as well as whether a product is compostable, degradable or non-toxic.

- Discouraging the use of general certifications or seals, or specify the reason for the certification.

- Discouraging marketers from claiming a product is safe for the ozone layer because its "free-of" a substance that poses an environmental risk, while it contains another that poses a similar risk.

- Encouraging marketers to say how much content in a product is made of recycled material, as well as explain claims that a product is recyclable, when facilities aren't accessible to more  than 60% of the population where it is sold. 

- Encouraging marketers to explain the specific type of renewable energy, i.e. wind or solar, used to make a product.   

- Encouraging marketers to explain why a product is considered renewable to avoid consumer confusion that a product is recyclable.

 It comes down to clearing up consumer confusion, so they can understand exactly what they're picking up off the rack.

"They [consumers] should be able to evaluate all the different claims and then make an informed decision," said Ha-Brookshire.

And even post-purchase, consumers can still make textiles sustainable. Once you've outgrown your clothes, Ha-Brookshire suggests you "recycle" them, by donating them.