The complexity of trying to strive for sustainable manufacturing is an issue we’ve addressed before here at Inhabitat when we received “sweatshop” comments on our H&M organic cotton post. Today we are going to revisit the issue again with an interview of two well know “eco-brands”, Terra Plana and Stewart & Brown, talking about sustainability in manufacturing.
Sustainability is a multi-faceted issue with more than one right answer to any problem. As consumers trying to get the things we want in the best way possible our decisions are not always easy. Are we pained to have to turn down those beautiful organic heirloom tomatoes at the market because they were flown in from Europe? Are the local, but non-organic tomatoes the better option? Manufacturing in developing countries can be a double edged sword. From a fair-trade perspective it can be an important way to support growing economies, but, carbon footprint aside, from an environmental and labor regulation standpoint China has become the four letter word of production.
While there are surely plenty of factories that do not meet environmental regulations, the issue is not as simple as boycotting the goods of an entire country. Terra Plana, which we have covered here before, recently was caught in the quagmire when raked over the coals in the British press about their Worn Again trainers that are produced in China. I received a timely email about the article, since I had just been speaking with Howard Brown, from stewart+brown, about this very issue at the recent designers & agents trade show. I decided to let these companies express their views as they are the ones on the frontlines. Additionally, tune in next week for an interview with Una Kim from Keep about their shoe production in Brazil. We hope you take a moment to read the responses these companies have put forth and take some time to let us know your opinion.
INTERVIEW WITH TERRA PLANA AND STEWART + BROWN ON MANUFACTURING
INHABITAT: What other options did you consider for production and why did you decide China was the best option?
Stewart & Brown: We actually do a lot of our production in the Los Angeles area-everything from fabric knitting through cutting, sewing, garment dye, and finishing/packaging. We just recently expanded our production to also include Portugal because of their amazing resources for organic cotton and excellent garment manufacturing. We use China for our sweater knitting. We were not able to find any quality production sweater knitters in the US. We have also used a tailored woven manufacturer in China (both manufacturers have offices in Hong Kong). This was for a surplus program in which we made a limited edition surplus collection (limited because of the nature of the fabric sourcing). We found leftovers from a larger companies’ productions and created our own small production run to use up this wastage. These surplus fabrics were found in Japan and Mongolia and we made great use of them with wool blend pants, jackets, and skirts.
At both China factories, the quality and level of service is outstanding. The people who we work with are efficient and conscientious. I just recently made a trip to visit both of these manufacturers in Hong Kong and to mainland China to visit the factories. Both factories were thoroughly clean, bright, roomy, efficient and organized. The workers had a standard length workday with a 1 1/2 hour lunch break (wish I could say that for myself).
For our style categories that are appropriate to manufacture in the local LA area (cut and sew knits/garment dye programs and some wovens), we love to support our local industry and keep the world travel of our product in its process to a minimum. However, I can not always attribute all of those above mentioned strong positive qualities to the LA factories. I do believe that there is too much industry moving to China for cheap manufacture, however our reasons are different and our costs there are not cheap. We are paying for the quality work which we receive. Also, after my visit, I am assured that we are making the right choice and I can now attest to the quality of our manufacturing facilities in china.
INHABITAT: Although there are fair and clean production facilities, there are enough unfair and polluting facilities to give a deserved negative connotation for producing in China and Third World countries. So what is the solution?
TERRA PLANA: TO GIVE BUSINESS TO THE CLEAN FACTORIES AND THE UNCLEAN ONES WILL CHANGE… THAT IS HAPPENING ALREADY.
TERRA PLANA: WE PUBLISH OUR COSTINGS ON THE WWW AND PUBLISH THE NAME OF THE FACTORY. WANT TO CREATE A DYNAMIC INTERRACTION ON AN IMPORTANT DEBATE. GLOBAL SUSTAINABILITY.
Regulated labeling? (for example: certified factory production)
TERRA PLANA: THERE IS LITTLE ECO REGULATED LABELING IN FOOTWEAR TO DATE – BUT I’M SURE ITS COMING. WE ARE WORKING WITH EU AND VARIOUS BODIES TO ADVISE..
Stewart & Brown: I agree that there is indeed a reason for the negative connotation but I believe that people are myopic for seeing it that way. China is a huge country and of course, you can not generalize so easily. Also, the negative connation may be a blessing in disguise. In order to maintain its rapid economic growth in the face of more and more scrutinizing global citizens and more and more concern over pollution and climate change, China does need to step up its environmental standards and clean energy use. The country is indeed an ever increasing environmental disaster. (but so is ours). I think corporate transparency and regulated labeling are good steps in the right direction. If more companies (by way of there customers) demand cleaner, more fair labor and manufacturing facilities, and china wants to stay on top of the manufacturing industry, hopefully the demand will lead the manufacturers in the right direction.
INHABITAT: As we move forward with the merging of commerce and sustainability we may see a “fractured environmentalism”. Organic cotton good, carbon produced in shipping all the way from China, not so good. I would argue that t-shirts and shoes are going to be made in China anyway, so an organic t-shirt or recycled shoe is at least a step in the right direction. However, I would also argue that a shirt made locally in Chinatown of conventional cotton may be just as sustainable. It is likely impossible to dot all the ‘i’s and cross all the ‘t’s in sustainability. What do you think the biggest issues are in moving sustainability forward in the apparel industry?
TERRA PLANA: THE ONLY WAY TO REALLY ANSWER THESE VICIOUSLY DOUBLE AND TRIPLE EDGED DEBATES IS TO DO ACCURATE LIFE CYCLE ANALYSIS. I.E. SCIENTIFICALLY MEASURING THE ENVIRONMENTAL (AIR POLLUTION, WATER POLLUTION, BIO DIVERSITY LOSS, DE ESIFFICATION ETC…) IMPACT OVER EVERY RAW MATERIAL, EVERY PROCESS, ENERGY CONSUMPTION, PRODUCTION, PACKAGING, USE, END OF USE ETC… BUT THIS IS STILL PROBLEMATIC AS WE DON’T KNOW FOR SURE WHAT ARE THE WORST ENVIRONMENTAL OFFENDERS.. IS IT WORSE TO CREATE AIR OR WATER POLLUTION FOR EXAMPLE? BUT FROM THESE MATRICES THAT ARE ALREADY APPEARING IN A LOT OF INDUSTRIES WE WILL ALREADY BE ABLE TO ASCERTAIN WHERE THE SPIKES ARE – AND THEN SHOULD FOCUS ON THOSE. I.E. IF SHIPPING IS REALLY THE BIG OFFENDER THEN I’M SURE LEGISLATION AND TAXES WILL START TO REFLECT THAT AND MORE REGIONAL PRODUCTION MODELS WILL QUICKLY APPEAR…
THE MOST PRACTICAL SHORT TERM STEPS ARE: INDUSTRY WIDE ECO LABELING (WHICH IS PROVING CHALLENGING AS NO SEEMS TO AGREE ON WHAT THE STANDARDS SHOULD BE) SO A LOT OF PEOPLE ARE ACTING ON HUNCHES IN A VERY COMPLEX FIELD.
ECO SYSTEMS AND NATURE GIVE US A LOT OF GOOD WORDS IN THE MEANTIME:
APPROPRIATENESS (TRAINERS MADE IN UK ARE NOT PRACTICAL – AS NO 2ND TIER SUPPLY BASE INFRASTRUCTURE),
EFFICIENCY (ORGANICS ARE VERY INEFFICIENT USING LOTS OF WATER AND LOTS OF ENERGY TO PRODUCE),
DURABLE (A SHOE THAT LASTS A LONG TIME AND IS GOOD TO WEAR – IS BETTER THAN AN ORGANIC SHOE THAT YOU HAVE TO THROW AWAY ETC…)
SIMPLICITY (MINIMUM COMPONENTS ETC…)
Stewart & Brown: It is a hard balance to find. People have to remember that in order to run a business and make a product, resources are going to have be used and goods are going to have to be transported. The stress needs to be on using the business economy to make profit for sustainable ventures. The question of organic vs local but conventionally grown is a common one in food choices people make as well. The key is for people to be educated so they can make informed decisions about how to spend their money. The more people know about pesticide and fertilizer use (what crops are most heavily, or least heavily sprayed) and where products come from, the better choices they can make. Cotton, for example, is one of the most heavily sprayed crops so I personally try to avoid any conventional cotton (I avoid conventional strawberries for the same reason but do not always buy organic asparagus or bananas because those crops are sprayed less in general). Bottom line is education and I think the biggest obstacle is the same in the food industry as in the apparel industry. People’s judgements and decisions are clouded by marketing. We need honest marketing which almost sounds like an oxymoron. Ideally, consumers should choose to spend because they are buying a quality or stylish product that came to them in the least harmful and least wasteful way.
INHABITAT: Now that “green is the new black” has been written to death… (Google Results 116,000 for “green is the new black”) what’s next?
TERRA PLANA: A DEEPER AWARENESS OF THE MANY FACETS OF SUSTAINABILITY. ITS NOT JUST ORGANIC AND ITS NOT JUST RECYCLED ETC… SUSTAINABLE GLOBALISM IS MY NEW BUZZ WORD…
Stewart & Brown: It’s a great first step that the masses are interested in green. The challenge will be to keep the mainstream interested and most importantly, motivated. Unfortunately, Our society has a problem with short attention span and so the ‘green revolution’ must not be seen as a trend or fad but as a way of life-change that is necessary for us all to continue to live on this planet. Hopefully people will get beyond searching on google and make some life-changes of their own. But Its a great step to get people educated and thinking and I do believe that poking through all the death and destruction environmental news out there, there are a lot of positive changes happening.
INHABITAT: Do you think there will ever be a carbon tax? If so do you feel we will see a re-shifting back to local production?
TERRA PLANA: YES I DO, BUT I HOPE IT WILL BE MORE SOPHISTICATED AND TAKE INTO CONSIDERATION COMPARATIVE ADVANTAGES (FROM A TOTAL SUSTAINABLE POINT OF VIEW)
Stweart & Brown: I sure hope so. Unfortunately it almost always goes back to money. Financial incentives have a great way of helping to make things happen. There is currently a lot of interest in eating locally and shopping at farmers’ markets. However, I think we are a very long way off from getting away from all the national chain and big box stores. Also it will take a really progressive government to actually pass a carbon tax because of all the big$$$ business/political tie-ins.