Gildan‘s vice president of corporate marketing and communications takes a close look at sustainability and what it means for garment and textile decorators

What does it mean when a garment is described as sustainable?

That depends on how you define ‘sustainable’. The holistic definition looks at all the environmental and social impacts, positive and negative, of the entire garment’s life cycle, including raw material selection, production processes, consumer use and disposal at the end of the garment’s life. In the past, and possibly because of a lack of transparency, a very narrow view was applied that limited the scope to evaluating the environmental impacts of the fibres used in the product. This inherently led people to assume organic cotton was good and polyester was bad. This may have been easy to understand and simple for brands to market, but this very narrow scope only looked at a small part of the big picture and most certainly did not ensure truly sustainable products.

I am encouraged to see that leading companies in the industry are using science-based data, gathered within life-cycle assessments, to really make more sustainable products. While the overall subject matter is complicated, in my view determining the sustainability of a garment can only be done if the brands can provide insights into the full spectrum of impacts. This transparency is obviously most easily delivered by brands that own and operate the production facilities where the garments are made. For brands that merely outsource the production of their apparel, this transparency becomes more difficult to provide.

Do you have to use organic fibres to produce sustainable garments?

Not necessarily. It’s wrong to assess the sustainability of garments within the vacuum of a single consideration of ‘organic versus conventionally grown cotton’. It would also be a mistake to naturally assume that all organic cottons are sustainable. Each region where cotton is grown presents a dierent set of variables, not the least of which is water scarcity.

Looking at US cotton farms, we know that organic cotton requires more water and more land and, because of lower yields and differentiated growing and harvesting methods, generates more greenhouse gas emissions than conventionally grown cotton. Advocates of organics would argue that these negatives are oset by the chemicals applied in conventional cotton farming. Data shows that precision agricultural practices, including soil monitoring, conservation tillage, alternative pest management systems and variable rate applications, have greatly reduced the environmental footprint of conventional cotton farming. Three years ago I spoke with one of the largest cotton farmers in Australia who after several years of drought had converted all his organic cotton acreage back to conventional cotton. When asked why, he explained that given the changing environment he knew that if he continued to farm organic cotton on that land, his son would be inheriting acres of useless and infertile land.

How can decorators find out whether a garment is sustainable or not?

Access to accurate information is the key. Decorators face a challenge in this process because of the complicated structure of the overall apparel industry, wherein most brands servicing the European decorator market do not actually manufacture what they sell and therefore are challenged to provide complete and transparent insight into the full process. Decorators should demand that the brands they purchase products from provide full transparency into the production processes, as relates to environmental, human and social impacts. They should be able to ask questions and get transparent responses. This transparency is most accessible from brands that own and operate the production facilities where the garments are made as opposed to brands that merely outsource the production of their apparel.

Decorators can also look to civil society organisations and accreditations to establish trust in the brands from which they purchase garments. The Oeko-Tex Standard 100 accreditation assures that no harmful chemicals or materials are present in the garment itself. Labour practice accreditations, like the Fair Labor Association compliance accreditation or the Worldwide Responsible Apparel Production (WRAP) accreditation, provide decorators with a good validation of the human and social impacts of brands‘ supply chains.

Why should they even be concerned about garment sustainability?

Doing the research and being well-versed in the sustainability of the products they oer can help decorators dierentiate themselves from their competitors. It is also important to remember that many of the largest corporations, charitable organisations or corporate customers now operate within ethical procurement guidelines and are increasingly asking about the environmental and social impacts of their choices. The most successful decorators are always the ones that provide their customers with the most complete business solution, so becoming aware of and communicating to their customers the sustainability of the products being ‘pitched’ can help further seal the deal.

Do you perceive a growing emphasis on, and demand for, sustainable garments?

I most certainly do. Decorators’ customers are driven by the same pressures that are driving consumers in general. Macroeconomic and environmental concerns are redefining social norms and creating heightened awareness in the next generation of business leaders to rethink what is acceptable. We are also seeing the influence of a generational shift. Millennials and Gen Z’ers have grown up with almost total access to information, enabled through technology and social media. 

Gildan uses bio-mass systems to generate thermal energy from waste

This has created a whole new set of expectations of what they should know, what they are going to be influenced by and how they will reward to the brands they trust.

What is the most important thing Gildan is doing to ensure it manufactures garments in a sustainable way?

Fundamentally we have learned first- hand that operating responsibly and sustainably is not simply the ‘right thing to do’ but actually a critical driver of our success and future growth. As a vertically-integrated manufacturer, we have direct control over almost every step in the process and scrutinise every small detail. This has allowed us to uncover savings and resource efficiencies that most brands cannot even see.Often looking beyond our own industry, we pursue continuous improvement and have invested heavily, more than almost any other apparel manufacturer in the world, in new equipment, technology and innovation.

A great example of this is our bio-mass systems wherein we burn agricultural and factory waste to generate thermal energy that powers our steam, industrial dryers and hydraulic systems, and in induction chillers even the cold air we use to air-condition our facilities. These investments, greater than US$50 million, allowed us to generate 43% of the company’s total energy in 2017 from renewable sources. [More information on Gildan‘s CSR strategy is available on its new website,] 

Do you have any advice for decorators on how to market sustainable garments to customers?

Decorators must remember to keep messaging simple and easily digestible, especially for customers who do not place sustainability as a top priority. I would also say, in my experience, that decorators should not assume that this is not important to their customers. Sometimes the most ardent environmentalists are found in the oddest places. 

In a nutshell, why should Images readers choose sustainable garments in the future? 

I genuinely believe that as citizens of the planet we all bear a responsibility to take ownership and positively influence the impacts of the choices we make. We also have the ability to inform the opinions of others, in the hope that collectively we can alter the course we are on. I also think your readers are also consumers themselves and it’s important to acknowledge that, although we may perceive our individual impacts as being quite small, collectively we can move the needle towards making the industry more sustainable. Many of your readers may not realise this, but 45-60% of the total energy and close to 30% of the total water consumed during the lifespan of a T-shirt occurs in the home. Washing only full loads, using cold water and hanging to dry generates substantial environmental benefits, saves money and actually makes our garments last longer.