I care very much about the environmental impact of this business, or its “sustainability”. I’ve written about the ambiguity of “sustainability” before, here, but nonetheless, I pursue “sustainability” in this business. This week I made an exciting, positive discovery regarding the ecological sustainability of the fabrics used in ETL’s first collection.
Sustainability of Fibers and Fabrics used by ETL
As a fashion consumer, I felt endlessly frustrated by companies making vague claims regarding “sustainability” without providing details. I want to know the type of sustainability — environmental, ecological, fair trade? I want to know what stage of production is being described as “sustainable” — fiber production? fabric creation? garment sewing? If I can’t get those details, I assume they don’t pass the sniff test.
My exciting discovery this weekend concerns the environmental sustainability of the fibers used to make the fabrics used in ETL’s first collection. (You can read more about ETL’s “societal” sustainability measures here.)
The environmental impact of the production of the Micro-Modal and Spandex fibers that comprise the “95% Micro-Modal / 5% Spandex” fabric utilized to make Athena with the Sashes, Jane with the Chain, Morgana with the Silk Rope, Jo with the Bandolier, and the drapes in Maureen with the Drapes, scores better than 52% of other fibers on Higgs Sustainability Index, a recognized tool used by professionals in the fashion industry to estimate the sustainability of fabrics.
And now the details. What is Higgs and what kind of “sustainability” does it measure?
It’s very specific. Higgs was founded 10 years ago as part of a partnership between Wal-Mart and Patagonia, called the “Sustainable Apparel Coalition.” Higgs measures the impact of the production of fibers on:
climate change (20% weight);
eutrophication (artificial enrichment of bodies of water due to runoff) (20% weight);
fossil fuel depletion (20% weight);
water scarcity (20% weight); and
chemical impact (20% weight).
Higgs does not measure the environmental impact of “downstream” practices after the yarn’s creation: fabric production, garment production, consumer care (A large portion of a garment’s environmental impact comes from consumer care — between 40 - 70% depending on who you ask.)
Why did this “fiber blend” score well?
One big reason: the Micro-Modal fiber (95%). This fiber is made exclusively by the Lenzing Group in Austria. Lenzing, as Higgs tells me, have a rare “vertically integrated” yarn plant, meaning the entire process for creating the fiber is contained within one plant: everything from harvesting wood to spinning, knitting, coloration and finishing. This is very rare in Viscose/Modal/Lyocell fiber production. In comparison to other factories, the vertically integrated Lenzing factory significantly reduces fossil energy consumption due to the re-use of excess energy recovered from pulping process in the actual fiber production process.
Using Lenzing’s Micro-Modal fiber — as opposed to regular Modal — decreases the overall environmental impact of the production of this fiber by almost 25 points on the Higgs Sustainability Index.
Finally, what can we do better?
The issue is complex. I worked really hard to find beautiful fabrics that were made in the USA for the first ETL collection. I can’t live with the idea of unfair labor practices in the development of my business. I tabled the environmental impact issue because I was still researching and I didn’t want to make un-substantiated claims. What can ETL do better?
I’m on the hunt for fabrics (i) made in countries with fair labor laws, or at least made under fair labor conditions, (ii) that score even higher on the Higgs Index, and (iii) that fit my fashionable and artistic sensibilities.
I’m also on the hunt for other objectively verifiable measures of “sustainability” as it relates to the environment. The Higgs Index is great, but it is not the be-all-end-all. It measures one small part in the process — the fiber production process — which ultimately culminates in an ETL garment. The other parts of the process are important as well.