Cheap and 100 % sustainable t-shirts are just a first step for C&A. It is calling on its fellow store chains and manufacturers to work together in order to create an accountable fashion industry.
An international C&A delegation arrived in Antwerp last week, as part of its very first Cradle to Cradle Certified Gold t-shirt launch. It used the launch to appeal to its competitors: the entire clothing manufacturing process could become more sustainable, if everyone is willing to work together. It desperately needs to move towards that goal though, because the fashion industry is one of the world’s most polluting industries.
C&A Global chief sustainability officer, Jeffrey Hogue, believes the industry faces two major challenges: to create a more sustainable supply chain and to get a grip on its waste. Seventy percent of discarded clothing simply ends up on landfills nowadays. Considering the fact that production and consumption are both on the rise, with one hundred billion pieces of clothing every year, these challenges will become insurmountable if not tackled now, especially since the emerging markets will only maintain or even speed up their consumption pace.
Fashion retailers now sell more items per consumer and also launch more collections every year. They now average five collections, instead of two. “C&A considers this to be an opportunity. We no longer want to focus on “not as bad”, but more on “better more often”, but we cannot do that alone.”
“Our family felt compelled to react. We were wondering how we could become a pioneer in this area as well”, Donald Brenninkmeijer said. Several “storytelling sessions” with European consumers revealed that people not only want to look good, but also want to feel good, which is why they are asking fashion companies to act responsibly.
“We started to wonder how future generations would look back on our action and you want to be able to answer that question. Consumers can get more information and want to know where and how our items are created. We have to enable them to make the right choices more easily. QR codes and storytelling is our way to inform them of our approach. Our industry can reach millions of consumers rapidly.”
Only a start
C&A went through an innovation process at increased pace over the past nine months, resulting in the first Cradle to Cradle Certified Gold t-shirt collection. No compromises, designed to be recycled and at very competitive pricing, but what sets it apart? The t-shirt is made entirely from bio cotton, even its labels which are traditionally made of polyester. Even the stitching is bio cotton, not the usual nylon or polyester.
The colours and prints were in collaboration with chemical companies that helped create non-toxic colouring dyes. If discarded on a compost heap, the t-shirt will dissolve within eleven weeks. “This is probably the healthies piece of clothing you could buy worldwide and we have two options, one at seven euro and one at nine euro. We will ship 400,000 across eighteen European countries.”
Brenninkmeijer emphasizes this is merely the beginning. “We have started a journey to an unknown destination.” He admits the t-shirt is a very simple item. “There is still a lot we need to examine before we can create more intricate designs, with different colours, fabrics, zippers, buttons and more, this way.”
Industry on the move
Can a major value retailer like C&A actually become sustainable and maintain its profitability? Brenninkmeijer sounds convinced: “The consumer is the most important. Sustainable clothing can be pretty and if we can manage to create that for acceptable prices and healthy margins, then this can work. It did require investments and not every factory is ready to work this way, so they will also need to change and invest. For C&A, 33 % of our cotton is already biological.”
Sometimes, sustainable is actually more efficient and cheaper. “We used to have thirty types of black, but we are now down to two, both more sustainable and higher quality. We also had more than fifty shades of grey, but we are now down to seven. This helps cut costs, even though the actual dye is more expensive.” Safer materials also helps manufacturers cut paper costs.
“We did not do this alone, but worked closely with our partners”, Hogue emphasized. “If we all ask our suppliers the same thing, they have to follow suit. Together, we can move our industry, because fashion brands are not going to compete on sustainability. We are open source, everyone can pick this up.”
This is exactly why C&A Foundation has co-founded Fashion for Good, a global initiative that calls on the fashion industry to consider new ways to design, manufacture, wear and recycle fashion. Located in Amsterdam, it aims to be an accelerator for new ideas, technologies and business models that can be introduced in the fashion industry. It is a knowledge platform for the entire branch: manufacturers, retailers, suppliers, NGOs, …
Twelve start-up (from more than 250 candidates) presented their innovative ideas at the launch event in March. Innovation platform Plug and Play, which helped launch PayPal and Dropbox, will help guide these start-ups in their quest for success. Some of the ideas? Fabrics based on vegetable fibers (hemp, flax, banana, pineapple, …) and manufactured with traditional cotton machines; an alternative to leather based on a fungus; new water purification techniques; recyclable eCommerce packaging, …
Fashion for Good’s first publication is the “Good Fashion Guide”, a guide for fashion manufacturers that wish to develop “cradle-to-cradle certified clothing. C&A’s first Cradle to Cradle Certified Gold t-shirts served as the template to create this guide.
In the meantime, Kering (which owns luxury brands like Gucci, Saint-Laurent, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and Puma) backed the initiative. Fashion for Good now hopes an increasing number of manufacturers and retailers will be enthused to help create a sustainable fashion industry worldwide.