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Being able to show your Earth-friendly bona fides

Being able to show your Earth-friendly bona fides. Being able to show your Earth-friendly bona fides isn’t just good retail manners, or simply an acknowledgement of the existential threat of climate change. It’s also very big business. Consumers are increasingly rewarding companies that show they’re on the side of the planet, from organic foods to power-saving appliances to electric cars. It’s reasonable to think the garment industry, one of the biggest retail segments out there, would fall into line, too. But it hasn’t.

“The problem is that everyone’s banging on about technology as the knight in shining armor, but it’s not going on at an industrial scale,” says Christina Dean, the founder of Redress, a Hong Kong-based environmental group working to reduce textile waste.

Sustainability standards are improving, Dean says, pointing to retailers such as H&M, Burberry and Kering (owner of Gucci, Stella McCartney and Saint Laurent). Many eco-friendly jean labels have popped up in recent years, too, including Boyish, Warp+Weft, DL1961 and Blanche.

Even Levi Strauss & Co. said last February it’s embarking on what it calls Project F.L.X. (Future-Led Execution), an effort to automate the denim-finishing process and reduce the use of chemicals. The blue jeans-giant has pledged to achieve zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by next year.

For Saitex, selling jeans to American companies isn’t enough—it wants to make them there, too. Bahl wants to open two garment factories in the U.S.—one in Los Angeles this year, and a second in the New York area by the end of 2020. It’s rare for new clothing production to come to the states. For example, the country’s last selvedge denim operation, the Cone Mills White Oak plant in Greensboro, North Carolina, shut its doors at the end of 2017 after more than a century in operation, effectively ending all production of the high-end, self-finished fabric on U.S. shores.

Bahl sees his foray into America as part of a bigger goal of encouraging sustainable manufacturing at a critical point in history. But will consumers pay a premium for clean jeans? Unless prices are comparable to the dirty kind, there may not be enough buyers, says Dean.

In order to spark real change, companies such as Saitex must show they are a viable business that can be replicated, she says. Fashion brands have yet to get the message across to shoppers about why they should care where their clothes come from, and how they were made.

For everyone involved—from the cotton farms to fashion boutiques—it comes down to a simple, non-environmental axiom. “Profits talk loudest,” Dean says.

Bahl remains confident his experiment will succeed, even as he prepares to begin operations in California, where the $11 minimum wage is astronomically higher than in Vietnam.

“Entrepreneurs have the choice to make,” he says. “Do they invest into long-term value creation or do they go after the low-hanging fruit? The minute they understand that the long-term value creations are actually profitable in the long term, it would definitely influence the thinking to adopt a different path.”

Bloomberg, January 16, 2019

Being able to show your Earth-friendly bona fides

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