Cotton is at the very heart of the textile industry – it represents around 30% of all fibres used in the sector. But the environmental impacts of production can be vast, with challenges surrounding child labour, farmer debt, and excessive pesticide and water use. Indeed, around 10,000 litres of water are needed to produce a single pair of jeans.

C&A, together with its corporate foundation, the C&A Foundation, has made it a central pledge to tackle the issue head on and drive the sector’s transition to a circular economy.

This summer, C&A became the first global retailer to launch Gold level Cradle to Cradle (C2C) certified t-shirts, which have been designed to be reused, recycled into new products or safely composted. Available in C&A stores across 19 European markets as of June 2017, the recyclable t-shirts are made of 100% organic materials, with safe materials and chemicals.

Some significant industry barriers stood in the way when the Foundation started its journey in 2014. As highlighted by WWF research earlier this week, sector efforts to source sustainable cotton is beset by major issues such as low customer demand, complexity of supply chains, additional cost and finding substitutes for problematic materials.

Perhaps the biggest stumbling block is the fact that organic cotton accounts for less than 1% of the world’s cotton, meaning that no incentive is in place for producers to deliver good seed for organic cotton. Despite these wide-ranging pressures, C&A managed to increase its uptake of sustainable cotton by around 20% in 2017, and also improved traceability by expanding its public lists of suppliers. 

Speaking to edie earlier this week, C&A’s chief sustainability officer Jeffrey Hogue explained that the process has been eased by learning from the information, experience and advice about sourcing more sustainable cotton available through credible programmes such as the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI).

“I would say that things such as supply chain complexity and cost are barriers for organic cotton,” Hogue said. “When you start to source any type of sustainable raw material there is a learning curve that any brand needs to overcome to figure out how to work it into their purchasing and buying processes.

“But in general, after a few months of sourcing through the BCI, we were able to overcome most of the challenges and we find it quite easy to accelerate at the moment.”

Cradle to Cradle

There were many roadblocks along the way towards delivering a C2C product. Gaining C2C certification involves a rigorous process that requires products to match criteria against five categories including material health, material reutilisation, renewable energy use, water stewardship and social responsibility. C&A searched the entire supply base and was fortunate enough to find two producers in India which fit the bill, both long-term suppliers that were sophisticated in their understanding of the certification criteria.

The sourcing of materials also presented a major challenge. As well as the basic material, bio cotton, C&A was forced to seek replacements to the stitching, typically made from polyester or nylon, as well as the care label, also from polyester. 

Once these supply chain issues were resolved, C&A set about delivering C2C clothing at scale and at an affordable cost for the mass market. In Europe, the t-shirt went on sale at a reasonable value retail price of €7-9, and early sales figures indicate that the garment is on par or above some of the company’s most successful product launches, according to Hogue.  

When it came to marketing the product, C&A made a conscious effort not to bombard consumers with confusing information about the complex design process, Hogue explains, but rather sought to give exposure to the item’s extensive social and environmental credentials.

“Those five areas of C2C criteria can be quite complicated to consumers,” Hogue said. “So what we’ve chosen to do is keep the messaging very high-level and understandable for our consumers based on consumer research. Promoting the recyclability of the garment is our key message, and the sub-message is that it’s organic, it is respecting nature and is responsible. Those are a little more easy to understand for consumers.”

Going beyond

Ambitious plans are in the pipeline to take the C2C project forward; a two-year strategy over the next four seasons will see more complicated garments such as nightwear and underwear sold across all age and gender divisions. Hogue is keen to stress that, unlike a number of flash in the pan sustainability projects undertaken by fashion retailers in recent times, the C2C programme will play a fundamental role in C&A’s long-term strategy going forward.

“When we decided to move down this path our chief merchant said ‘I don’t want to do this if it is a one off or a pilot’,” he said. “You’ve seen a lot of brands come out with pilots around sustainability which lasted for a short period of time and then disappeared. For instance, these footwear firms that come out with footwear made from fishing nets. There have been a couple of those that have gone through one cycle of product launch and I don’t think they are taking it forward.

“What we have decided is that we will take it forward. In winter and spring you are going to see a variety of products that go beyond the basic t-shirt which will be marketed under the C2C standard. These will be more complicated products across a variety of divisions.”

Fashion for Good

C&A wants other brands and retailers to follow its lead and has taken pains to ensure that the design blueprint is available to any manufacturer. As such, the company launched the Fashion for Good initiative in March to bring industry players together to “reimagine how fashion is designed, made, used and reused”, inviting those who want to learn more about the initiative to its newly opened Fashion for Good Centre in Amsterdam.

Fashion for Good has enabled competitors to learn from best practice, with a downloadable Good Fashion Guide taking readers through the process, including listing C2C-certified ingredients and manufacturers. And as wider part of a collaborative action, the C&A Foundation has supported the cross-industry initiative, Cotton 2040, aimed at turning sustainable cotton into a mainstream commodity.

Hogue suggests that sustainability shouldn’t be viewed as a competition, and is a firm believer that companies should instead focus on opening initiatives to be used by the wider market and rivals.

“There is a phantom business case on whether this creates a competitive advantage or not,” Hogue said. “We’re not going to change the world by producing 400,000 t-shirts. We’re going to change the world if all brands that produce t-shirts produce them in this type of way. Our thinking behind it is that it is a basic t-shirt, and there’s not much in terms of IP around how to create a basic t-shirt. If we share it with the world and encourage other brands to come down this path, it will make a difference in how these garments are produced and make a positive impact on the environment.

“The biggest compliment we could get is if Walmart do this with tens of millions of t-shirts. They would take what we have learned and apply it to a much larger scale. It would drive more impact reductions and more good in the apparel industry around these types of products.”

Fast fashion

C&A’s circular business model highlights that the industry is taking steps to reduce the environmental footprint of its products. Attentions within the fashion sector are now turning to consumption: the insatiable appetite for fashion means people are buying more and more clothes. Since 2012, the amount of clothing purchased has risen by 10% in the UK alone. And not only are people buying more, their apparel gets discarded quicker as they chase the latest fashion trends. Around 30 billion of underused clothes reportedly lie dormant in wardrobes in the UK.

Bearing this in mind, will it ever be possible to slow down fast fashion? According to the C&A Foundation’s executive director Leslie Johnston, the fashion sector should not seek to deprive consumers of buying new clothing, but rather support the circular transition adopted in the C2C approach by nurturing and scaling innovative solutions that can change the way clothes are made, used, and reused.

“The concept of waste is critical and that is why we are looking at innovation as a way to tackle that, not only to reduce the waste that is being used, but also looking at innovative business models,” Johnston said. “Why is it that leasing models such as Mud Jeans have been challenged? It’s a great idea but it is not really taking off. So what are the current business models? And are we going to shift from what is currently now a globalised, decentralised, opaque industry, to more of a multi-local production model as AI and 3D printing continue to accelerate?

“What if fashion shifts from walking through the store to being able to design able to print the newest design on your home printer? There is probably going to be a massive shift in this industry. I don’t think it is realistic to try to get people to change their behaviour to consume less. There are good intentions out there. We all try to be more sustainable and buy less clothes than we would like to but that is going to be tough. It is our responsibility as an industry to try to come up with new ways that can reduce or eliminate that environmental footprint. That is where circularity as an approach is very compelling – the whole C2C approach is basically around endless loops.”

George Ogleby

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