As part of my efforts to be more involved in the evolution of sustainable fashion, I reached out to Textile Exchange. I discovered their yearly conference and luckily it landed stateside this year! Thanks to their awesome team I felt welcome to attend and learn more despite not being a full-fledged member of the organization. It's traditionally a week-long event, but I attended their one-day roundtable sessions which involved stakeholders from every portion of the supply chain.
Ashtin, (my amazing & sweet photographer) came along for the trip at 8 months pregnant! Such a trooper sitting through the day of events which included two roundtable discussions: Sustainable Agriculture & Consumer Awareness.
As part of my experience, I wanted to get a more thorough understanding of their mission. Liesl Truscott, European & Materials Strategy Director of Textile Exchange was kind enough to answer some questions for us.
Were you always on this career path within sustainability? Was there a turning point in your life that lead you in this direction?
Liesl: I grew up in New Zealand, in the countryside. Being outdoors was my natural habitat. This definitely sparked my passion for nature and a fascination with ecosystems. Career-wise, I started off studying hematology (blood!) but switched to environmental science as a mature-age student back when the topic was really just starting out some 25 years ago – or at least it was in Australia, where I studied. I knew it was for me!
What lead to forming the initial Organic Exchange, non-profit organization?
Liesl: I wasn't there in the beginning, 15 years ago, although it's coming up to 10 years for me with the organization. From what I know, Organic Exchange was the brainchild of a group of frontrunner brands in sustainability including Patagonia, Nike and, of course, our managing director La Rhea Pepper, who at the time was still working as a farmer growing organic cotton in Texas. The brands wanted to find organic cotton and the farmers wanted to find buyers. Organic Exchange was initiated to help the two meet!
Over time, it looks like some of the initiatives expanded, was this in part due to the variety of materials in the marketplace and understanding what happens to their end of life? We now not only see natural materials but poly, rayon, acrylic, etc. in products.
Liesl: Yes. At one point organic alternatives to conventional cotton, wool, linen, silk etc. was pretty much the only product companies could convert… and these were the signature of a “green” textile brand or retailer.
These days, however, companies are able to review all their fiber categories and consider a “preferred” option. As you say, there are alternatives to conventional synthetic fibers such as recycled and, increasingly, bio-based options coming on line. At Textile Exchange, our suite of sustainability standards continues to expand – we cover recycled materials, responsible down and wool, alongside our organic content standards.
What are the main goals of the annual textile sustainability conferences?
Liesl: Our conference tends to focus on our key area of focus: “creating material change.” This year, we introduced a connection to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We believe the SDGs are going to be THE most unifying agenda for society and the textile industry can play an enormous role in helping achieve the Goals.
People say they come away from our conference feeling informed, inspired and connected! These happen to be our three pillars of operation and what we strive to do every day – but our conference is where it really does all come together.
There’s something about its size (not too big, not too small), its diversity of attendees (from all over the world and all parts of the supply network), and it's friendly, welcoming atmosphere that makes it special. It’s a big job but certainly the pinnacle of our year!
There are many designers and brands out there looking to be more involved in sustainable practices, do you have any guidance on the best ways to get involved in this side of the industry?
Liesl: I would say spend time in the enquiry phase. Speak to as many people as you can and do your research.
A positive and passionate mind is definitely vital to success – as is persistence – but I couldn't emphasize enough the need to develop a good understanding of the options and opportunities in textile sustainability. At the same time, be aware that many companies have already paved this road and there is no need to go it alone.
Textile Exchange has a membership program that provides tools and resources to help you be well informed. Talk to as many people as you can, and always go back to the raw materials. If you can visit a cotton farm, a sheep farm, a recycling factory…do it!
And remember, nothing is perfect. Nothing is “water-tight sustainable.” Sustainability is a continuous journey. It’s a verb not a noun. We are always happy to talk to new designers and brands, so if you are one of those, don't hesitate to contact us!
Do you feel Textile Exchange has already been able to make a positive impact in the industry and reached certain goals?
Liesl: Oh absolutely! Sometimes we forget about the achievements and successes – because we are so focused on what’s next. But the flood of congratulatory emails and thank you messages that arrive after our conference offers a nice reminder to reflect on the work we do. So yes, customer satisfaction is a big one for us.
Moving the needle on the increased usage of preferred fibers is very satisfying. We’ve just released our Preferred Fibers and Materials Report for 2017 and in it we reveal that more and more companies are reporting increased usage of preferred fibers – meaning fibers produced with improved social and environmental impacts. This shows progress in both fiber strategies but also transparency.
This year, 95 companies participated in our report, disclosing data on preferred fiber consumption and associated sustainability practices. That’s the highest number of participants we’ve ever had!
Are there some that are on a larger scale and feel harder to solve?
Liesl: Oh yes. One of the biggest challenges is pricing and responsible trade. The industry, like most of business, is set up to maximize profit at the end of the chain (the most powerful end.) So learning how to ensure shared value throughout the supply network is definitely the toughest hurdle I think.
Ultimately, long-term sustainability and business success will depend upon farmers and other raw material providers being adequately rewarded for their sustainability efforts and being able to rise out of poverty—or we will not have farmers or topsoil to grow the fiber! This is true particularly around carbon sequestration, water management, eliminating hazardous chemicals, and so on.
Synthetics have their own set of challenges: decoupling from the oil industry is incredibly difficult. And society’s attitude toward disposable fashion has led to thoughtless consumption and mountains of waste. Yes… there’s plenty to be getting on with!
Can you speak about your standards like the responsible down or organic cotton standard? Are these utilized on products for various brands as a way to verify the process and if so how would a brand go about that?
Liesl: The short answer is…yes, more and more brands and retailers are using our standards to build in integrity and assurance that the fibers they select are being grown or produced in a more sustainable way.
The demand for standards across a broader range of fibers is definitely growing. We are currently looking at leather, potentially manmade cellulosics, and biosynthetics.
Our approach is to proceed with standards development when there is a clear appetite by the industry and, of course, a clear need. Our Integrity & Standards team would be very happy to talk to brands wanting to find out more and we have some very comprehensive information on our website.
Have we seen growth in consumer awareness?
Liesl: Yes, I believe so. There is certainly more interest in the “story” and the authenticity of a product. People appear to want to know where things come from now and being able to make a personal connection to the product. I think this is the result of too much “stuff” these days. People want a point of differentiation.
There is also more concern about health and knowing what awful substances, human rights abuses or animal welfare issues might be associated with our food and clothing. The internet has allowed more access to information and the speed in which it travels.
At the same time, most of the world still remains oblivious to the problems of over-consumption, waste, social and environmental sustainability. A recent poll showed there is less concern about climate change today than there was five years ago. I hate to be pessimistic – and I’m sure all your readers are aware and concerned – but I fear we are still very much a minority. Companies, governments, NGOs need to set an example. Research shows that talented young people want to work with companies that are ethical and responsible. The tipping point will indeed come and I would not give up on engaging the consumer!
If you had one wish or goal what would you like to see happen in the industry overall? Think big, it could be anything!
Liesl: I always say… think of your “business” as your entire supply network, not just your company. The more empathetic and “human” we can be in business, the more we can move away from transactional relations to an “ecosystem” of inter-dependencies—and the more likely we are to figure it all out. That means hard success factors as well as the softer ones.
If you could use a time machine to go back 15 years what piece of advice would you give yourself?
Liesl: Ha! Where to start…? Maybe it’s this: within reason everyone is trying to do the right thing. Finding common ground is key. We may agree to disagree —and live with that. But what do we all care about? Our children? Our community? Poverty? Clean water? So for me, I’d advise myself to be more mindful of what I share with others and not judge or waste energy on being too caught up in the injustice. I know I’m still working on that!
Lastly, after a long day what is your favorite way to unwind?
Liesl: A chilled glass of a New Zealand sauvignon blanc ☺, dinner with my husband and kids, hearing about their day and re-connecting with their busy lives. Oh, and my walks with Theo, our black Labrador. He grounds me.
Check out www.textileexchange.org to learn more about their process!