Sustainable Textiles? The Textile Community Talks

An industry in transition. How advanced is the textile industry in reducing the carbon footprint while implementing ethical business practices? 
LA International Textile Show,
LA International Textile Show | Trade Area

Larry Serbin, President of Hemp Traders, says there is not too much advancement in the industry“Certainly the companies making the textiles are trying to be more environmental in their processes. But overall, organic textiles are a very small percentage of the overall textiles which are produced. Only a few companies specialize in organic fabrics.” 

In my recent findings, by walking the aisles of the Los Angeles International Textile Show and talking to vendors, the fashion textile industry had no representation of Eco-friendly textiles [organic or otherwise]. There was no specific section designated for sustainable textile suppliers/exhibitors, nor was there any statement made within their offering for environmentally friendly fabrics.

LA Intl Textile Show, (2)
LA International Textile Show | Trade Area

Other conversations with textile representatives show that they are pursuing, what they call, a niche market, and a golden opportunity! They believe that the textile industry should take responsibility in reducing the environmental footprint. Creating a sustainable model of Eco-friendly fabrics can have a long-term advantage in transforming the fashion industry.

Sustainable textiles – a niche opportunity

It’s quite difficult to characterize the sustainable textile sector within the mega textile industry. There is no statistical or numerical evidence of the size of this sector. To put this into context, the global apparel market is valued at 3 trillion dollars, 3,000 billion, but there is no numerical breakdown on the players [retailers, designer brands, manufacturers, etc.] in the sustainable market.  We know that there are emerging and established brands/designers that participate in some way in both environmental and ethical practices – such as Levi’s, Patagonia, and Stella McCartney – as well as producers all along the supply chain. They are experiencing growth. Larry Serbin says that his company, Hemp Traders, has doubled in size in the last ten years.

Eric Wilder, founder of 3 HG Network, a natural product marketplace, says, “In our scheme of things, it’s come a long way since we began our operations in 1994. The product development stream and quality consistency along with prohibitive price points are now much in line today….in a general sense though, I’d say there’s still much room for growth and improvement (and that’s exciting) as more interest of and necessity for our type of products is resulting in more money investment going forward.”

Jay Arbetman of The Sourcing District, says, “Unquestionably, the nature of fiber and the ethics of the manufacturing process are becoming increasingly important to suppliers, designers and consumers”.

Guglielmo Olearo, international exhibitions director of the Première Vision New York textile show said in an interview with California Apparel News, a big market trend “is linked to sustainability—to smart products, taking care of the environment”. With the re-thinking of the fashion system, he’s hopeful that these developments will reach the more conscious consumer.

LA International Textile Show | Peclers Paris Exhibit,
LA International Textile Show | Peclers Paris Exhibit

A strong interest from clients is fueling the demand.  Eric Wilder and Larry Serbin did a series of designer friendly themed trade shows (NYC, Miami, Las Vegas, San Francisco) between 2014-2016 specifically targeting interest gauge for Hemp/Eco fibers.  The response, Eric says, was a resounding YES!! “The buyers/designers loved our offerings and seemed surprised yet thrilled at the scope, diversity, and qualities of selections that are natural fiber, hemp, etc.  Most had mentioned their intent to offer something(s) ‘Eco’ from their companies/clientele, too.  They wanted to ‘keep up’ with where things are headed, trend wise.”

Government support?  

According to Report Linker, governments are encouraging the development of domestically grown natural fibers to decrease dependence on polyester and rayon imports. For example, the Indonesian government is promoting the use of locally grown agricultural commodities such as silk and cotton. Although they have infrastructure and resource challenges, Africa’s 55 independent countries, collectively, represent an opportunity in sustainable development and supply. In Ethiopia, Fikirte Addis of Yefikir Design says, “while there is still room for improvement when it comes to technology and infrastructure, the support and attention from the government is encouraging”.

Government can also stand in the way of progress, with regulations being a major push back. Serbin says, “The biggest challenge for hemp has been its legality.  It has been illegal to grow for the last 80 years. Only now are some laws changing. And then we need to play catch-up with the technology in farming, harvesting, and processing.”

“This is the rule on almost everything”, says Wilder.  “Government generated red-tape, especially pertaining to the import necessity for hemp fibers, is prevalent and frustrating for obvious reasons. Eventually, things are becoming mainstream with each passing year and American farmers are chomping at the bit to receive the green-light to embrace hemp and other natural fibers for a re-tool/boot for their deeply depleted bottom lines.  What’s promising is the consistent upgrade in hemp fiber production methodology and technology capabilities going forward.”

LA International Textile Show | Showroom booth: Japanese Denim Supplier,
LA International Textile Show | Showroom booth: Japanese Denim Supplier
The Ethical Equation. . .

In addition to producing environmentally sensitive materials, “ethics” is a big part of the sustainable equation. Jay Artbetman states that “looking at the ethics of fabric production, such as Tencel, Modal, recycled polyester, and organic linen, has become much more advanced than organic cotton and hemp.  Ethical labor and environmental practices must be considered.”

“The leader in this area is Kendor Textiles”, Arbetman says.  “They are innovators in balancing quality, ethics and style in both knits and woven fabrics.  Kendor, Philips Boyne and others use Chinese manufacturing facilities with Okeo Tex Standard 100 certification.  Some facilities in China, India, Pakistan and other countries, where labor and environmental laws are non-existent or not vigorously enforced, have fallen out of favor from suppliers to independent designers.”

Other suppliers giving consideration to an ethical supply line are, “New York knitter, Sextet Fabrics, who manufacturers everything in the USA. Some companies, such as Art Gallery Fabrics and Gordon Fabric LTD, favor high quality prints manufactured in Korea where labor and environments laws are significant and progressive”, says Arbetman.

LA International Textile Show | Peclers Paris Exhibit,
LA International Textile Show | Peclers Paris Exhibit
Education, Flexibility, and a new mindset

Textile producers are strengthening their commitment to sustainability by educating clients and end users. Education is key. “More people are concerned about what they eat vs what they wear, says SerbinMost people want their textiles to be as lower priced as possible.”  Hemp Traders has produced a  flyer  that talks about beneficial properties of hemp and its beneficial environmental properties. They, as many others, are educating clients and consumers via their websites, printed materials, and talking at trade and fashion shows.

Independent and emerging designers welcome the industry’s flexibility, smaller production runs, and lower minimum orders. Hemp Traders makes it easy to work with hemp products by requiring no minimum order and keeping all of their products in stock for immediate delivery.  Overall, the sustainable textile market is making it happen, responding to the environmentally conscious objectives that this next generation of designers are demanding. They are taking a non-traditional approach and doing things differently and the textile community realizes they have to adapt.

Paul King, President of Kendor Textiles, says that the textile industry needs to change the mindset of driving short term profits and look at long term gain when it comes to this sustainable market.  ”The fast fashion and the drive for profits every single year are issues in our industry.  Supplying good quality product for long term gain is what has to happen.” 

This niche market is headed in the right direction. One day sustainable textiles will be the norm.

Watch the interview with Paul King, President Kendor Textiles, who talks about sustainability, challenges, and confidence in the fashion industry.

Jay Arbetman, The Sourcing District
Larry Serbin, Hemp Traders
Eric Wilder, 3HG Network

Read more on best business practices and resourceful tips in EDGE-ucation, and sustainable practices in sustainable EDGE.

Rhonda P. Hill

Founder, Publishing Editor