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How clothing brands monitor the environmental impact of their suppliers

The challenges ethical brands can find when tracing their supply chain

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Manufacturing clothes comes with a high environmental impact, therefore consumers are asking brands to be more transparent on their supply chains. Here we guide you through the most important steps to do so!

It’s no longer acceptable for clothing brands to turn a blind eye to the environmental footprint of their supply chain. As conscious consumers are asking more questions about where and how their clothes are produced, it’s becoming harder for brands to turn a blind eye to the environmental impact of their supply chain. 

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How are brands adapting to these raised environmental standards?

The answer lies in solving two main challenges clothing brands face:

  1. Knowing what to look for in a supplier
  2. Getting a fair evaluation of a supplier’s environmental footprint

How clothing brands monitor the environmental impact of their suppliers

(A Look Inside A Garment Factory. Image: theprch.com)

Challenge 1 – Knowing what to look for

The wide variety of clothing types, market regulations, and end-consumer demands make it challenging for brands to know exactly what aspects of their environmental footprint they need to monitor or correct. Most brands approach this in a tiered fashion: 

Tier 1: The first box a brand will want to check is that they are meeting legal requirements. 

The biggest threat to a brand is that their clothes are unable to be sold in their destination market or they are hit with hefty fines for not meeting environmental regulations. International brands have to meet various different environmental regulations based on variables including: 

  • Where their supplier is operating
  • Where they are headquartered
  • Where their destination markets are
  • The type of product they are manufacturing

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Tier 2: Often this minimum standard of legal environmental standards is not enough for a brand’s customers. 

The next tier for a brand is to understand their customer’s standards and expectations with regards to environmental impact. To meet the needs of their customers, brands have a few choices:

  • They can implement an existing framework such as the international standards of an organization like ISO (International Organization for Standardization). These international frameworks usually meet the minimum expectations for environmental impact of consumers and come equipped with an evaluation plan that is readily implemented.
  • A brand can also create its own set of standards, then clearly outline that framework in a way that can be used to evaluate its supply chain.

Most environmentally conscious brands will start with an international framework such as ISO 14001, then add any specifications of their own so that the protocol meets their own standards. It’s also important to note that this is not a one-and-done feat. Brands must continually adjust their standards to keep up with changing regulations, market policies, and consumer expectations.

How clothing brands monitor the environmental impact of their suppliers

(Overview of ISO 14001 Framework. Image: ASQ.org)

Challenge 2 – Getting A Fair Evaluation

Having a framework of environmental standards for your supply chain is one thing. Getting a fair evaluation of a potential supplier using your standards is another. We’ve all heard of the Patagonia supply chain breakdown where they were sourcing materials from unethical goose farms. Patagonia’s challenges show us that even leaders in the environmental movement have trouble managing the environmental and ethical standards of their suppliers.

How clothing brands monitor the environmental impact of their suppliers

(Image: kcrw.com)

Suppliers may be incentivized to cut corners to increase their profit, especially in long supply chains where suppliers have a loose connection to the final destination market. It isn’t uncommon for a supplier to be on their best behavior during an initial visit from the brand that hires them, but then revert to less ethical or environmental practices overtime to cut costs. Brands usually adopt one of two different solutions to prevent this quality fade:

Solution 1: Brands hire an experienced third-party auditor / inspector to visit the site. 

Here are some examples of what third party auditors commonly investigate:

Environmental Audit – (example from an actual environmental report

  • Legal requirements and risk assessment
  • Environmental management system
  • Solid and hazardous wastes
  • Waste water
  • Air emissions
  • Nuisance
  • Energy use, water use, CO² emissions

How clothing brands monitor the environmental impact of their suppliers

(Water Sampling for Wastewater Testing. Image: QIMA.com)

These third party auditors will provide a full report and often also offer add-on services to continually monitor, implement a corrective action plan, or help find a new supplier.

How clothing brands monitor the environmental impact of their suppliers

(Environmental Audit Report Example – from the QIMA Audit Company)

Solution 2: Brands can send their own in-house employee to inspect and monitor suppliers. 

If brands have the means, they can send their own dedicated staff to audit, report, and monitor suppliers. Upon their findings, they may choose to create a corrective action plan for their suppliers to improve their environmental performance or elect to find new suppliers that meet their standards. 

Using in-house employees can be more expensive and less effective for brands that have short production runs, or suppliers in countries far from their headquarters. Brands using their own auditors usually face some of these challenges:

  • Maintaining training for the latest protocols
  • Keeping auditor’s objective
  • Managing travel, communication, and coordination with suppliers

Most third party auditing and inspecting companies also offer some level of certification, which brands can use to communicate a level of environmental stewardship with their customers. This is an added level of trust that is hard to match when they are conducting audits on their own.

Regardless of how brands get the job done, those that are making the investment to make their supply chains more environmentally friendly are more likely to win the business of conscious consumers.

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Brands of The Future

It is a considerable task for clothing brands to evaluate and monitor their suppliers and ensure they are meeting a minimum standard for environmental impact. The cost of time and money cuts into a brand’s short term profit, which is why most brands keep their supply chains opaque. 

However, brands vying for long term growth and more market share with conscious consumers are taking this trend seriously and are investing in stricter environmental standards and more transparency within their supply chains. Brands that either implement their own testing and monitoring or hire a third party firm, are able to show their customers their commitment.

As long as consumers continue to put pressure on brands to meet their environmental standards, we will see further improvements in the footprint of their suppliers.

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David Evans

David Evans is a freelance writer covering sustainability challenges and solutions. He writes to help companies and consumers understand the environmental and ethical challenges in products and their supply chains so we can find viable solutions for both. See more of David’s writing at: Plastic.Education or follow on Twitter: @plasticedu

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