Sailing the Seas of Green

Part I – “Sustainability” and what it means to us

Most folks are familiar with the notion of “sustainability”. In the textile industry, ensuring environmental responsibility and limiting negative impacts on the Earth’s ecosystems, are the cornerstones of any enterprise that seeks to sell clothes or accessories that respect the environment.

But where things get complicated is that there is no single definition of sustainability, nor related descriptors such as “eco-friendly” or (gulp…) “green” – and so, from one brand to another, you’re likely to find different approaches to operating in an environmentally responsible manner.

Back in 2012 when we formed our company and started thinking about our own approach to sustainability, we wanted to ensure that sustainability was woven into our company’s core identity and operations. We probably knew as much about what we didn’t want the brand to be, as we knew about what it should be. For example, we were adamant that it would not over-generalize. Having worked in the sustainability sector for many years in Vietnam and around the globe, I was only too aware of the tendency for some businesses to use the “S word” without really explaining what, how, and why.
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Hemp field in Ha Giang province, Vietnam, where Hmong communities have been producing hemp-based fabrics and other products for centuries.

Defining “sustainability”

Some people say it is easy to recognize activities that are unsustainable because we know it when we see it. Think of extinction of some species of animals, often due to the activities of humans. Or salinity (salt) in our rivers due to changed land management practices. And at home, the amount of packaging you put in the bin that has to go into landfill. But what about defining “sustainability”?

Even having worked in the sustainability sector for nearly a quarter century, I admit I still struggle with describing in plain language what sustainability means. I often find myself throwing around terms like “carrying capacity”, “resilience”, “footprint”, and (perhaps my personal favourite) “ecosystem integrity”. And while I feel that I can pretty much explain what these terms mean, it is NGO-speak at its best….and reminds me of those “Buzzword Bingo” cards my more humourous colleagues email around at times.
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The term “sustainability” really only gained widespread usage beginning in the late 1980s. I can remember vividly the Brundtland Report (generally known by the title Our Common Future), which was released in 1987 (my first year as an undergraduate). More than any other previous event or publication, the Brundtland Report ushered in the term “sustainability”, defining it as “meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

A plethora of alternative definitions soon followed, in many cases introducing additional (or new) concepts.  Such as:

“Improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting eco-systems.”

“The principle of taking from the earth only what it can provide indefinitely, thus leaving future generations no less than we have access to ourselves.”

“The rates of renewable resource harvest, pollution creation, and non-renewable resource depletion that can be continued indefinitely. If they cannot be continued indefinitely then they are not sustainable”.

Measuring sustainability

There may well be as many definitions of sustainability as there are groups trying to define it, and for me, many of these definitions do seem highly conceptual at times. How can these be applied to a small company and its operations? And how would they measure sustainability (and their contributions to it)?

I recall during my graduate studies days at UBC, the noted ecologist William Rees developed the concept of the “ecological footprint.”  This is defined as the amount of land and water area a human population would hypothetically need to provide the resources required to support itself and to absorb its wastes, given prevailing technology.

I liked this idea, as it introduced some sort of measurability into the equation and provided a conceptual framework that most folks could recognize.  It is essentially the idea of “living off the bank interest” and not “spending the base funds”. Conservation organizations like the WWF like it too, as they and others use the concept of a “Global Footprint” in their work (and by the way, according to WWF the world’s total footprint is now more than 40 percent larger than the planet can regenerate).
image01The global ecological footprint – the area needed to generate the resources consumed by the people who live here – has been growing steadily (source: WWF)

Sustainability in practice

Applying this global idea at a local scale and to a company’s operations may not be totally obvious either. In our case we felt that the ideal of “living off the interest” is the best guidance, and measurability the best practice.  For our artisan partners in Vietnam – ethnic minority groups including the Hmong, Thai, and Dzao – it goes beyond an “ideal”.  It is, to paraphrase Atticus Finch, a working, living, reality. For centuries these communities have been producing hemp, dyes, and other materials using traditional methods.  Their future economic development and cultural preservation, rests heavily on the sustainability of local production.

Since we work at a local level and under direct sourcing, it is relatively straightforward to measure our influence and impact.  For example, what proportion of arable land is being used for hemp (vs. less eco-friendly systems such as cash crops)?  What percentage of these operations are using 100% natural fertilizers? What proportion of products, by volume, are using natural dyes?  How do all of these change over time?

We knew too that our approach needed to be more than managing environmental impacts.  We needed to apply sustainable solutions, so that the positive impacts of a particular project or practice are themselves sustainable.  This is where the social and economic aspects of sustainability especially come into play, and why ethical business practices and fair trade are so intimately linked to long-term sustainability.

So this then became another key pillar of our own company’s approach to sustainability (and informing our Responsible Business Policy as well) – to leverage the global marketplace to help incentivize local communities to continue with traditional eco-friendly practices and methods. Being value-adding, and passing the market premiums to the artisans themselves, is as important an outcome as any direct positive impact we may have on the local environment: the two are umbilically linked.
old-ladyGiang Di Sinh at the hemp loom in Can Ty village, Vietnam.

Labelling sustainability

Some folks may define sustainability in more basic terms – simply something that is certified with an eco-label.  Indeed, there are now over 70 textile sustainability labels, regulation and standards in the marketplace.  These are very useful for consumers and producers alike.  But some of these labels are completely voluntary and require no independent audits.  Moreover, the lion’s share of these labels deal with either organic fibers and/or the use of dyes and chemicals. Nothing at all wrong, and so much right, about that.  But while the use of organic fertilizers and eliminating toxins is important, the sustainability of farming and other production systems is, in the big picture, dependent on many other factors (e.g. water resource management, soil degradation, waste and discharges) that are not rigorously considered in these standards.

Unfortunately, in the textile industry there isn’t really a similarly and universally acknowledged sustainability standard. And, given the complex and fragmented supply chains involved, as well as the array of product varieties, this should not be too surprising.  I am reminded of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) – a seafood eco-certification label that I worked on in its early days and which is now universally recognized across the seafood supply chain (and especially among retailers) as the “Gold Standard”. Iin fact, MSC even has a copyright on the use of the word “sustainable” on seafood packages.  But from what I can tell, developing a universal and comprehensive “sustainability label” for the textile sector makes complicated systems like MSC seem as easy as organizing a lunch between old friends.

“A rose by any other name…”

But perhaps this is all just splitting hairs.  My wife seems to think so. It was Huong’s vision that led to the company being created.  She witnessed the steady erosion of a rich cultural heritage among ethnic minority groups in Vietnam, as well as increasing threats to traditional environmentally-friendly textile processing, and wanted to do something to help.  She wanted to apply her creative design skills and her interest in community stewardship to develop a line of products that do not leave a mess in their trail and provide overall socio-economic and environmental benefits to local producer villages.

And so while many interpretations of “sustainability” may be applied, and different approaches taken, perhaps what matters is what something is, not what it is called.  Different companies will have different approaches to putting sustainability in practice.  For some it is eliminating toxins from their production or reducing pollution through their supply chain; others may focus on the recyclability aspect and reducing waste.

Along these lines, it may be better if we look at sustainability as more of a journey or path than a final destination – a process of continual improvement, of genuine commitments and actions.  More important than words, descriptors, or definition is that companies are able to clearly describe what they are doing to benefit the environment and to provide information about how they are delivering on their claims.

Please share your views.  As a conscientious consumer, what do you look for in a sustainable or ethical fashion brand? As a company, what is your approach, practice or policy in addressing sustainability and reducing negative environmental footprints?

Keep an eye out for Part II of Sailing the Seas of Green, where Huong and I will share more thoughts and ideas about what to look for in the world of eco-friendly and ethical fashion, particularly in the developing world.

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About the Author

Keith Symington is Sustainability Manager at Natured Designs (online store coming in February 2016), and Co-founder of its parent company Villagecraft Planet.  He has worked in the environmental resource management sector for over 20 years, initially in Pacific Canada, and since 2004 in Vietnam, working with World Wildlife Fund and as an advisor on sustainable supply chains to the Government of Vietnam and consultant to the private sector. He lives in Hoi An, Vietnam, with his wife Huong, two daughters, and various mammals, reptiles and invertebrates.

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