The Truth About Sustainability in Apparel


Emily Lane, Bret Schnitker


October 24, 2022


Emily Lane 00:09 

Welcome to Clothing Coulture. I'm Emily Lane. 

Bret Schnitker 00:12 

I'm Bret Schnitker. 

Emily Lane 00:13 

We speak with experts where we explore the global dynamics that shape trends in the fashion industry, 

Bret Schnitker 00:20 

brought to you by Stars Design Group, a global production and design house with over 30 years of industry experience. 

Emily Lane 00:35 

Welcome back to another episode of Clothing Coulture, Bret, I am so excited to have this conversation with you today. It is one that we are engaged in almost daily. And it is one that I've been asking you to have a conversation with me about since the con since we have had the original idea to have this show. And it is also a conversation that you've been a little nervous to have. 

Bret Schnitker 01:00 

It's a challenging conversation, especially in our industry. Right. 

Emily Lane 01:04 

So today, we're going to be talking about the viability of sustainability in the apparel industry. So sustainable, sustainability, it means a lot of different things. Right 

Bret Schnitker 01:19 

you know, I think it originated with the Latin verb sustineri, which really means maintain support ahold, just something pretty simple. And you know, it, you know, the basic premise is really, you know, allowing current humankind to meet their needs without disrupting future generations. And I think that becomes a real challenge today, you know, where it's like, equilibrium of resources has been thrown around, you know, people are defining it differently. They've got like three pillars that they talk about economic, environmental, and social, people, planet and profit, right, this whole balance and how we kind of live there, you know, the first modern context was almost 300 years ago, and is this guy, Hans Carl von Carlowitz, wouldn't you love to be introduced that my name is Carl Carlowitz. And he introduced this term called Nachhaltigkeit. And that really translated today in German is really kind of sustainability. And he referenced, he's actually a tax accountant. You know, you think he's like some forest ranger, but he's a tax accountant, and also kind of a mining administrator. And he really referred to it in forestry about, you know, living within your means, knowing that whatever resources you use, you can rely that that resource is going to be at the same level in future generations as it is today. And, you know, that conversation today continues to gain steam, continues to gain conversation, you know, at all levels. I mean, we've got, you know, some great intellectuals, intellectual minds in, you know, the world today, Bill Gates, you know, he's, he was dead on about the pandemic. And so I think we shouldn't dismiss his conversations about if we don't do something immediately and urgently, then there's not much of a future on our planet. And I think you now when we, when we look at that sustainability, we also talk about resilience, and, you know, resilience is, you know, so there are things about using material using resources and making sure that there, but there's also people use resources, and it impacts the environment, that resilience, conversation is a lot about the, you know, nature's ability to withstand human, you know, consumption. And I think, you know, when we look at, you know, these these factors, one of the biggest factors is certainly fewer people consume less, or people consume more. And I think as far back as the 1970s, we hit a point where, you know, scientists kind of said, hey, we've crossed that border, where human consumption has eliminated the ability for the earth to balance against it, as far back as the 1970s. 

Emily Lane 04:16 

And that's primarily is it population growth? Is it just just better living and consumption increasing and wealthier nations? What What do you think 

Bret Schnitker 04:27 

kind of hit a lot of main points on the head, the impact they tried to calculate the impact by creating some type of a formula as scientists like to do? And you know, the formula was really certainly population, you know, the amount of people on the planet versus times affluence and what when we think of affluence, we think oh, people that are offloaded people that have more in generally they they kind of link that as, as communities, countries. civilizations get wealthier or more stable, they consume more. So it's directly related to consumable, right? And then it's also times technology. So technology can play a handle in reducing our footprint or increasing our footprint, increasing our ability consume more. And so they calculate all those things trying to determine the impact. And I think one of the biggest factors that we looked at is that, you know, I think in the 1970s, we might have had about 3 billion people, or 3 billion on the planet. And today, there's over 7.7 billion people. And so we continue at a pretty escalated rate, I think, dabbled in my time, you had stumbled probably during our double here. We've had a lot of new people showing up during this podcast. Yeah, yeah, it's pretty, it's pretty wild. I think, when we look at death versus birth rate, you know, people die, we're all going to be there. And then new new people come into the world. And I think on a daily basis, it's over 100,000 114,000 people show up on this earth versus people that die every day. And so those things have a pretty profound impact on our resource need for the planet. And because of consumption, absolutely. But I think, you know, when we look through all of these different apps, you know, attributes, there's these basic building blocks of life, that, you know, we float in this airy hidden space that outside, we can't really survive today. I know there's comments about moving to Mars and finding new habitable planets. But we can't do that. So this, this earth we live on is our life preserver. Sure, and to maintain that life preserver, there's these key biochemical elements that are required to maintain this homeostasis for us to survive. And there are things like that we would understand oxygen, nitrogen, water, carbon, the building blocks of life and phosphorus. And, you know, a majority of those things are running negative. And when we look at our oceans, and we look at our water supplies, pollution is impacting those plastic particulates are impacting those. And so when we, when we think about this whole conversation, I don't think anyone argues the fact that we've got to take a different tact, or there's not going to be a future for our future generations. I think there are some that probably turn a blind eye. And then we have to sit down and apply it to our business and apparel. Right. Yeah. And, you know, I think today, you know, when we look at that conversation, it's it's a challenging one from the numbers. 

Emily Lane 07:47 

Yeah, you know, if you look at the apparel industry, you know, in 2019, 100, and a mil 111 million metric tons of fiber, were produced to meet consumer demand, that equates to 244 billion pounds. Yeah. Which if you break that down by population, you know, it's 34 bat pounds per person. So 

Bret Schnitker 08:13 

every year, 

Emily Lane 08:13 

every year, right, yes, yeah. So absolutely growing, right. So you know, knowing that that certainly taxes, the resources that we have, aside from making conscious efforts to maybe consume less, or maybe live in a little more minimalistic way, there's got to be things that we can be doing in the apparel industry to help chip away at this. I mean, even if it's just one little thing that can be done, that maybe takes my pound usage from 34 pounds to 33 pounds. Imagine that multiply it out by 7.7 billion people. That impact, 

Bret Schnitker 08:55 

Certainly, in theory that seems very positive. This is the challenging part of our dialogue, is that we think that as consumers, if we reduce our use, we're going to solve the issue. And I think a lot of larger corporations and different groups that are creating some of these elements, they would love us to be able to try to say we're the solution providers. I don't think that's really the solution. I think that you know, when we look at our industry, there are certain materials that we use, that are more sustainable, certainly biodegradable, and there are some that are last, if not at all, and one of our biggest challenges that we deal with in our industry is the the change over the last number of years from a natural fiber kind of base community at one point I remember when I started you know, in this business years ago, that when we talked about better goods, we dialogued about really good cotton, great Woolen products, Cashmere, Mohair, you know, now troll fibers. Silk 

Emily Lane 10:02 

was that 

Bret Schnitker 10:02 


Emily Lane 10:03 

was that a global was 

Bret Schnitker 10:05 

Yeah. And I think that, you know, people kind of live within those in those different, you know, geographic centers, they had different shifts, if you were in a hot, arid climate, linen was more important, it was cooling, but a lot of those elements were natural, were natural fibers. And, you know, technology hadn't progressed enough where everything was GMO, and there wasn't a ton of really nasty fertilizers were a maximum out, you know, maxing out our production. But, you know, we, if we wanted to do goods of quality, we use those fibers, if we wanted to do goods that were, ooh, cheap and discount, and, you know, maybe some people were those that was a polyester conversation I see today, the change has rapidly shifted 

Emily Lane 10:49 

is that because demand grew so quickly, 

Bret Schnitker 10:52 

listen, you know, you're a king of market or queen of marketing. And so I think, you know, as our business as our civilization has evolved, so has polyester, and its technical abilities. And I think people in marketing have really pushed that, hey, you've got a garment, you can wash over and over again, it doesn't shrink, it doesn't wrinkle, its performance, you know, wicking capabilities, it becomes sexy, it becomes performance, it becomes easy, and utilitarian. Today, of that 100 and 11 million metric tons of fiber we produce every year 52% of that production isn't polyester? 

Emily Lane 11:31 

Oh my gosh. 

Bret Schnitker 11:32 

And so we kind of look at that, you know, that that number? And we think Well, okay, 

Emily Lane 11:38 


Bret Schnitker 11:38 

what's the problem? polyester by nature is plastic, 

Emily Lane 11:44 


Bret Schnitker 11:46 

People don't go all the way down that road. And we've had all these conversations, you know, we hear it on the news, we see it on special programs, that our oceans are filled with plastic, we've got all these issues. And we've got to address that. And I think when we when we start to dialogue and recognize that are the biggest culprit in our industry, are these performance, you know, mainly polyester, nylon has, you know, some challenges certainly also, but and that 52% of the fibers produced annually and growing, are in that category. And a typical polyester fiber takes 1000s of years to break down. I don't think people really go there. Right. You know, we talk about a nuclear event, nuclear event happens 25 your half life. Yeah. And surround yourself cockroaches, that's the only labs but, you know, we're shocked by that amount of time that that a radioactive event impacts our, you know, our environment, right. We talked about underground bunkers and everything? Well, we're producing polyesters at a rate that are enormous, with 1000s of years, before they break down. And I think that, you know, as I travel the world, I see plastic bottles, littering landscapes, there are places in Africa that it can rain, and the water doesn't soak into the ground, it just sits there on the top. And so, you know, a lot and and these, there are 10 major polyester producers for the world, major ones that really do the majority of the production. And I think, you know, it's incumbent on us as a group to actually push the responsibility back, because, you know, economics plays a role in all of this. And so, you know, when we take a look, and we say, well, oh, my god, there's recycled poly. Why don't we all just start jumping on recycled poly? Or why don't we, you know, I've heard some conversation about biodegradable poly, the numbers and the statistics that follow those two numbers are pretty staggering. Only 14% of the one over 50 million metric tons of polyester they're produced are recyclable. 

Emily Lane 13:59 


Bret Schnitker 13:59 

that doesn't mean biodegradable, it means that you can take those fibers back, should you be lucky enough to get them right. 

Emily Lane 14:06 


Bret Schnitker 14:07 

recycle them. Some of them are recycled from plastic bottles, you know, 

Emily Lane 14:11 

and I'm also curious about how, you know, how many times that that can be recycled? Like I know that, for example, plastic water bottles, you know, despite what you may hear, you can really only recycle those once, 

Bret Schnitker 14:25 

once to twice maybe and then the the actual fiber starts breaking down, right? And it doesn't have the resistance. That's one of the challenges. In a lot of the recycling that's going on really is kind of this plastic bottle PT recycling in these different areas, but anything in those fiber areas that are recycled. You really have one, maybe two times and the challenge is how to get your hands on that. And then understanding that only 14% of the business that we do is recycled we ask ourselves why there One key factor, the supplier is not big enough, we just don't produce a lot of recycled poly, too. It's expensive, significantly more expensive than basic poly. And in some cases, mechanically, it's not as strong as the virgin polyester. You know, we know in some recycled poly garments, that pilling is an issue. Customers like to wear these things longer. And we'd have a garment that pills all up the little fiber breaks and gets over the service. That's not ideal. And that recycled poly is not biodegradable presents at some point that's going to end up in a landfill, a generation or two down and create that same issue. So then we look and turn our attention to bio degradable polyester. And there's a lot of chemicals that that are pretty popular now that people are diving down the biodegradable polyester. 

Emily Lane 15:57 

Okay,so you're in that what you just said, 

Bret Schnitker 15:59 


Emily Lane 15:59 

there are chemicals like, 

Bret Schnitker 16:01 


Emily Lane 16:01 

that to me, 

Bret Schnitker 16:02 

they're kind of a bio based petroleum blend. 

Emily Lane 16:04 

Okay, so maybe more eco friendly, 

Bret Schnitker 16:08 

to the point that some of the ones out there certainly have a very good view. And a lot of the testing that's been done through ATCC really supports the fact that, you know, over a little over 1000 days, it'll biodegrade. And then a lot of what happens to waste, you know, get shipped off to different countries in the US where the major were a major exporter of our waste. And it ends up in landfills all over the world. And then some of those landfills, they they certainly have burning polyester produces some pretty noxious fumes and toxic. Yeah, for the for the communities that live around them. These biodegradable polyesters don't that you know you can, you can have a burn rate, they won't have produced noxious fumes. So that all sounds wonderful. And there's like a list of five or six different chemicals that people are looking at. There's new companies that are coming on every day, 

Emily Lane 17:05 

How is the accessibility of that. 

Bret Schnitker 17:07 

That's the challenge, 

Emily Lane 17:08 


Bret Schnitker 17:08 

1% 1% of all of the polyester produced is biodegradable today. And so 

Emily Lane 17:18 

is that because demand hasn't been there because it's too expensive, because it's not being produced. 

Bret Schnitker 17:21 

all starts, it starts with a number of factors. But one supply is not there, we don't have enough supply to impact those two areas effectively, to if we would ramp up supply. I think it's incumbent on these large producers to technology finds a way. And so when we start down the road of technology, things are expensive. And as technology improves, and volume increases, technology traditionally gets less expensive. I think it's incumbent on these 10 major producers to find solutions that are as affordable as non biodegradable, polyester. And, and and have that introduced in a way of volume to replace it. Because certainly from the consumer, if you ask the average consumer, hey, do you want the planet to be around? You know, in a number of years, do you want your future generation be safe? The answer be yes. And if you talk to him about polyester and how it sits in micro particulates, and it's all in all, it's in all of our bodies today, if we eat fish, those micro micro particulates that have been absorbed into efficient oceans, we're ingesting those. I mean, there's some really vicious reports layered, it's multi layered. And so if you look at those aspects, and you ask the questions, everyone's on board, you know, from the consumer level, then if you say, well, your $19 wicking shirt, or whatever is now going to be 80 then it's going to take much longer time to produce, you get a massive fall off economically. And so I think that becomes that inherent challenge that we live in, in the in the industry, because there's a lot of conversation, people would love to talk a positive game, but you have to make sure one the resources there is there to it's economically viable. 

Emily Lane 19:16 

Yeah, you know, I, this just kind of makes me think a little bit of conversation that we just had with Jon at Evolution where we talked about robotic knitting and, and in that sustainable contribution, and one of the things that he talked about was multiple groups coming together to solve the problem. You've got government, you've got, you know, education. Right. And, and I see that being a need here as well because let's face it, the numbers all have to work you know, if companies who are producing the the, the polyester, they you know, it has to go beyond them wanting to do good. It has to be profitable for them to exist to employ people. Yeah. And perhaps if it's expensive to embrace the technology to create the solution, then that's when, you know, the education and government needs to chip their hands in it as well, I can see how tough it is to bring all the people together to not only create the solution, but then you have to build the infrastructure to support the demand. 

Bret Schnitker 20:22 

And one of the challenges you look at is that typically, in business, it's not enough that people look at it and say, Hey, we need to make a change, they have to see a pathway, they have to see a plan, you know, for consumption for that shift to happen. And so I think the best solution really is, you know, there's a lot of dollars in a lot of these companies, and some of them are investing, you know, I'm not broad base saying or broad brushing, all of these companies are trying to create some recycled or biodegradable polyesters. But I think the time is urgent for them to actually step their game up and really have a solution because pulling it from the consumer basis, or pushing the idea from the consumer basis, is not going to have the traction that we need clearly at the speed we need. It's got to be built in terms of the availability and the neck, both the availability in terms of the metric tonnage, but also the availability economically to be able to drive that down the chain because people aren't going to change rapidly. They're thinking there are some positive things happening in our direction. And we talked about in the last podcast, you know, fast fashion, kind of going too slow, intentional fashion. Those will have those will have percentage impacts in the challenge we're dealing with, but they certainly won't have wholesale changes. It's got to occur at the at the manufacturing base. 

Emily Lane 21:49 

I'm curious about, you know, the fashion industry is so exposed on this issue, like people, people see the fashion industry being a major contributor to the problem. And yet, it seems pretty clear that there's only so much that can really viably be done. But there's got to be even if it's just checking off this box or that box to make one, there's one thing we can do in the whole process of making one garment, I've got to believe that there's benefit, if it's using a dye that's more eco friendly, if it's using a fabric that's made of fibers that are, you know, a sustainable natural fiber, if there's, you know, a process that is doing good by the water, you know, there's got to be things that can deliver impact, and I'd love to explore with you. What are those boxes, that people do have access to that? You know, it might affect price a little bit, but but there are there are solutions for that, that people who are building garments, or purchasing them anyway can include into their manufacturing process? 

Bret Schnitker 23:01 

Sure, I think some are, you know, some of those boxes, you mentioned water recycling and water purification, you know, those that one has sort of a head start in some countries. You know, water is a basic building block of life. And if we pollute our water systems, we're screwed. And so I think a lot of government and populations have had a large pushback about the pollution that's occurring in our waterways due to some of these deals, and the apparel industry, in some countries has really made some large strides in that respect. Those strides have been recent. That's the downside right there. Also, but there's, you know, China's recognizing the catastrophic, you know, ecological conditions that have been created in a country that has built its entire base on massive industrialization. And so, you know, they last year, year before last closed 1000s of dyeing plants that didn't meet water reclamation standards. So, there are things that are happening and there are areas that provide hope and opportunity that exist, I think, you know, one of the decisions that we can make is that, you know, if we're not going to solve the polyester decision as a, as a community of fashion, you know, we can make steps that are less impactful to you know, our environment and it could be a return to natural fibers is one dialogue. And so, you know, in natural fibers, sustainability groups break out natural fibers in two to three main components preferred. So, preferred cotton preferred wall, preferred bio based materials, 

Emily Lane 24:47 

what does that mean? 

Bret Schnitker 24:48 

What that means is that the crop itself is produced, you know, they would prefer non GMO genetic genetically modified, they would prefer that there aren't pesticides and that the crop itself is being planted in such a way, it's not depleting the natural resources, the land that it's being planted on. So that creates, and that certainly as a crop wool is an animal fiber. So they have similar, you know, settings for that, you know, sheep and wool and things like that, are they creating a sustainable position where she part depleting the resources and you know all of that. So that's ideal. That's not again, a very massive percentage, right of, of the different components. When we look at cotton, cotton is decreased to about 26% of that tonnage we talked about. 

Emily Lane 25:43 

And there's a real rise in cotton prices at this current time. 

Bret Schnitker 25:48 

Yeah, cotton fluctuates, I think there's really not a ton of reasons why that's happening. But cotton will go up and go down. And, and I think, you know, when I sit around the table, a lot of times I look around, a lot of us are still wearing cotton and feeling really comfortable. It's a fantastic fiber. And so as a purist, preferred cotton and organic cotton, that's the way to go. You circle you check the box, and you move on. The challenge, when you look at that, again, is is that 25% of the 50 million metric tons that we use in cotton, I'm averaging or rounding it off, is organic, or that. So it's not, it's not a big percentage against only a quarter of that cotton that's being produced. 

Emily Lane 26:33 

Looking at that, I mean, that is a more precious commodity. So having realistic expectations about the fact that look, there's just not as much of it available, it's going to cost more, 

Bret Schnitker 26:42 

it's going to cost more but also if we make decisions to maybe use more cotton then we are poly cotton will break down become biodegradable won't have such an impact on the environment as plastic will, I mean, you look at you look at polyester and you go 1000s of years to biodegrade, that's a pretty clear statement. When you look at cotton, you know, 100 days or whatever, depending on the landfilling conditions, it's a natural fiber, it's going to, you know, biodegrade relatively well, so we can make choices within natural fibers, you know, make some decisions, we're using a lot more of these natural fibers, you know, preferably organic are preferred, but there's limitations there in terms of availability, but shifting to materials that we as human beings have used and naturally biodegrade and are naturally from the earth are things that we can do, until some of these other things catch up, you know, I think blindly running down the road, on some of these fabrics, that that are, you know, the staggering number that we have in polyester becomes more staggering, when you really look at it in the next five years. It'll be 30%, higher, you know, in the next five years, and who knows what will be the next 10 or whatever, you know, as these populations, these massive large populations become more and more consumer driven. Right, you know, some of the other impact is a commitment to better, you know, I believe, and I am seeing it, it's ever so slight, but I am seeing a shift in America to more of a European philosophy, where we want better quality, we don't need to be in the disposable clothing mentality in the fad fashion, we kind of want, you know, something that will last longer, therefore, the quality is better. And it's kind of that conversation we talked about last going from faster, slower fashion, you know, speeding down, slowing down our consumption a little bit, using more natural and more, you know, dynamic fibers and keeping them longer, will probably buoy some of the economic challenges that we have with the slowdown of the fast fashion economy and help the climate and the economy law or the you know, the ecological such situations. Long term. 

Emily Lane 29:01 

We often have questions with brands retailers, who are wanting to make sure that they're working with a factory that's sustainable or certified. Yeah. What are the certifications that that are out there? And what what, what are they actually certifying? 

Bret Schnitker 29:20 

Yeah, well, sometimes this gets mixed certainly into the people planet and profit conversation sustainability. You know, factories have two main certifications, one social compliance. So are we treating our people ethically? And it's sort of along a scale, are we meeting all the rules and regulations of the country, sometimes a little elevated, there's certifications like WRAP certificate certification, which really, it's a pretty exhausting certification. They look at a factory, they make sure that they're treating their workers right over a long period of time and they go back and double check that European version. That's BSCI. There's other things called Better Work. And then there's an elevated level of that, that certain factories are moving to called fair trade compliance. And that's, you know, are they being paid a living wage, in addition to all the social benefits. So that's one certification, the other certification, they're actually factories going for sustainable certifications. And that's a big tall task. And a lot of these factories, we, you know, in our industry, for the most part, with the exception of, you know, really high end brands, we're going to throw a lot of third world countries and developing nations and, you know, newly industrialized nations, to produce our, our garments. And so for that factory to make a commitment to be sustainable electricity is a massive expense in some of these countries. So, you know, they'll look through and look and analyze their entire factory top to bottom and find more efficient ways, utilizing less power, less use of resource, recyclable, you know, recyclable elements. And all of those combined help a factory to be certified in sustainability. 

Emily Lane 31:07 

Well, I can see how challenging and complicated this conversation is, I feel like there's still so much to dive in and talk about, and maybe we should pick this up at a part two conversation sometime down the road. Are there other factors that you think, you know, before we leave today that you can share that might give people a sense of hope or something they should be looking to, or advocating for or embracing in their apparel designs that can help just do their part? 

Bret Schnitker 31:40 

Yeah, I think it's the mind shift. And when you really look, you know, I know that some of the conversations I have could be a little bit of a downer, because you, you Everyone wants to believe there's a solution. Today, we're not at the point that that solution, that solution scalable across the demand, 

Emily Lane 31:58 

it's not fully holistic, from, you know, farm to fiber to fashion. 

Bret Schnitker 32:03 

No, and and the availability just is not there. But I think that if we can all start mentally to prepare ourselves and have conversations with those supply bases that are going on, continue the pressure, as more and more conversations occur, as more and more conditions change in the world today. I think they these larger producers, have no choice but to evolve their manufacturing base to to, you know, meet some of these real world challenges. And I think, you know, from an assortment base planning using natural fibers, having conversations about what five, which fibers are more impactful and less impactful, being transparent to the end consumer about why we're making decisions on different fibers, why some of those things are more expensive. Education? Yeah, I think storytelling we talked about that in marketing today that we've, we've moved to this economy that people want to hear more about. It's not an a, it's a beautiful, you know, shirt, and I really like it. They kind of want to hear some background story about it. I think. I think those things really lend themselves well to, you know, the change in conversation. 

Emily Lane 33:18 

They're all really great that thanks so much for exploring this conversation at last with me. And I certainly look forward to more conversations in the future. Make sure to subscibe to stay apprised from more conversations, on Clothing Coulture 

Bret Schnitker 33:34 

Thanks Emily 

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The Truth About Sustainability in Apparel