THIS past winter, a few people from L.L. Bean paid a visit to Cone Mills - the world's largest producer of denim. Their mission: to see how "green" their bluejeans supplier was. In more scientific terms, they conducted an "environmental assessment." For Cone Mills, based in Greensboro, N.C., the survey wasn't unusual. Levi Strauss & Co. toured their waste-water treatment plant not too long ago.
Environmental audits are nothing new in the textile industry. In the past they have been conducted by government regulatory agencies or self-imposed to see where costs could be cut. But today, the environmental-awareness explosion has the textile and clothing industries casting a green eye on all aspects of manufacturing. Retailers are looking at the environmental impact of their products. Ecologically minded consumers are checking labels and weighing the positive and negative aspects of fabrics such as cotton, polyester, and rayon, not to mention the methods of caring for their clothes.
According to the American Textile Manufacturers Institute (ATMI), the industry has invested $1.3 billion in the last 10 years on environmental controls. In 1991 alone, $200 million was spent on pollution controls and related equipment.
But an industry-wide push is encouraging companies to go beyond mere compliance to government standards. In March of 1992, ATMI launched the "Encouraging Environmental Excellence" initiative, which "challenges companies to further strengthen their corporate commitment to the environment and advances the concept that environmental stewardship is the responsibility of everyone - communities, governments, corporations, and employees."
Companies accepted into the program earn an "E3" seal of approval and permission to use the logo on their hangtags. "Environmental preservation by individuals and businesses is not only the right thing to do, it is also good business," says ATMI spokesperson Deborah Anderson.
Dixie Yarns in Chatanooga, Tenn., is a founding E3-member company. It came out with a line of yarn and fabric manufactured with low-impact or natural dyes on organic and transitional organic cotton.
Cone Mills is also on the E3 "honor roll." One recent improvement it made was to recycle polypropylene bale wrap (used to package cotton and polyester fibers).
Some industry observers say these initiatives point to an attitude change within the textile industry. Years ago, companies simply reacted to legislation; today they try to anticipate it, with an awareness that consumers are watching.
"I sense a far greater readiness to be pro-active instead of reactive," says Martin Bide, a textile scientist who teaches at the University of Rhode Island in Providence.
Dr. Bide is conducting an environmental study comparing the wet processes used with cotton and polyester - the No. 1 and No. 2 fabrics in the world - sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Mangagement.
Take dyeing, for example. He found that the dyes used for polyester need comparatively few chemicals compared with those needed to set dyes in cotton. Also, in order for a cotton garment to be made wrinkle-resistant, it needs a chemical finish. Polyester doesn't need that kind of finish, Bide says.
Generally speaking, the environmental arguments made against cotton deal with the industry's heavy use of chemicals - during the agricultural, manufacturing, and finishing stages. Says Bide: "Last year [the US] came within a whisker of growing a record cotton crop (the record was pre-World War II), but using only one-third the land." That's because of the intensive agriculture practices used to achieve high cotton yields.
The general ecological arguments made against polyester deal with the fact that it comes from petroleum - a non-renewable resource that goes through many chemical processes and is non-biodegradable.
Cotton and polyester, on the other hand, don't compete with one another directly in the marketplace, Bide says, and they are often blended. Buying one over the other doesn't necessarily indicate you're being more environmentally responsible, he says. Balancing cost and environment
In processing, the "go-greener" attitude has manufacturers facing a tough balancing act: how to be more environmentally responsible without reduced quality and increased cost. "In a highly competitive business, it's very difficult to make high-quality products in competitive price ranges and at the same time make environmental improvements," says David Mention, manager of product research and testing for L.L. Bean, citing Cone Mills as a successful example. Taking environmental responsibility into accoun t when considering doing business with someone is "something that's been overlooked too long in American business," Mr. Mention says.
It's not a question of technology but a question of cost. In many surveys, consumers say they would be willing to pay more for products made in environmentally responsible ways. In practice, however, studies show they do not.
Then comes the question of acceptance. A burlap sack could be deemed eco-friendly apparel, but unless it became the rage - either as chic streetwear or on the runways in Milan and Paris - it would not be accepted. Add to fashion-consciousness this consideration: The United States faces stiff overseas competition from countries that have far less stringent pollution-prevention policies.
Still, some companies have found that certain pollution-prevention measures save them money in the long run, such as reducing solid waste and promoting recycling.
Bide says the key is incremental change at the manufacturing level. For example, companies are trying to use dyes that require less water, he says. They are also finding ways to clean up or re-use the water after dying. There are also non-formaldehyde processes to make cotton more wrinle-resistant.
Many people in the retail apparel industry who are concerned with the environment see promise in two areas: organic cotton and fiber made from recycling soda-pop bottles. In all areas, "low-impact" is the "in" adjective. Here are just a few samples:
* Esprit's Ecollection offers a line of "socially and environmentally sensitive clothing," which debuted in the spring of 1992. The clothing is made from organically grown cotton; transitional cotton (cotton grown in accordance with organic standards, but on land which is under a three-year mandatory chemical-free period); and Tencel - a low-impact cellulosic fiber similar to rayon. Clothes in the collection are produced using low-impact dyes, natural enzyme washes (to soften, smooth, and prevent pilling ), non-electroplated hardware (zippers, rivets), and tagua-nut buttons. This fall, Ecollection will add wool jackets made from 100-percent recycled wool.
* Fashion designer and environmentalist Barbara Lesser has created her own women's sportswear company - "Wearable Integrity," which features organically grown cotton and an "ecologically safer" manufacturing process. Fabrics are finished without formaldehydes, resins, or bleaches. "Part of my mission is to help clean up industry habits," says Ms. Lesser, who is based in Santa Monica, Calif. and started out in the mainstream garment industry before going into what she calls "more meaningful" work.
"I think the most interesting concept is organic cotton - the whole concept of sustainable agriculture," she says. "In the past year, the changeover has been so dramatic.... Now department stores are getting more supportive, whereas they used to see it as something political." But, buyer beware, Lesser says: Some companies try to appear "green" but are not practicing environmental responsibility.
* Patagonia is introducing PCR (Post-Consumer Recycled) Synchilla; outerwear that is made from polyester extracted from plastic soda bottles. Patagonia spokesman Mike Harrelson says people often perceive of natural fibers as more environmentally friendly, but as more life-cycle analysis is done researchers are finding that's not necessarily true. Patagonia prides itself on its environmental assessments of various fabrics. "All textiles have some dirty laundry," he points out. "Where we can pick a path of
less impact, basically we're going to do it." Mr. Harrelson also notes that making clothing that will last a long time (and stay in style) is environmentally responsible in and of itself.
The textile industry has always been good at recycling its own waste, textile scientist Bide says. Waste cotton goes to make paper; textile mills in the Carolinas have sold their sludge to farmers for fertilizer for years. But only recently has the industry looked at post-consumer waste - namely soda bottles - as a source for fiber.
Wellman Inc. and Dyersburg Fabrics make the fleece for Patagonia out of Fortrel EcoSpun - a fiber created from 100-percent recycled plastic beverage bottles.
Du Pont made dacron polyester sails for the "HMS" Rose out of recycled soda bottles and car fenders. Frank Aronhalt, Du Pont's director of environmental affairs and recycling, says "Anytime the word 'recycle' comes up there are a couple of basic considerations: Is it cost and energy efficient?"
Another recent "eco-friendly" fiber advancement is Tencel from Courtaulds Fibers Inc. The original marketing thrust for the fiber was to introduce it as "a new luxury fiber, but the industry has really responded [to the fact] that it is produced in an environmental manner," says Ellen Flynn, director of marketing.
Although it has some of the same performance characteristics of rayon, it is more durable. Like rayon, Tencel is made from wood pulp (from sustainably harvested tree farms, according to the company) that is put through a solvent spinning process. But unlike rayon, the process is "close-looped," meaning that the dissolving agent is used over and over again.
Tencel has received much publicity which irks Sally Fox. "Tencel is much better than rayon; it's responsibly produced rayon," she says, "but ... you're still cutting down trees." Also, "this stuff will be dyed."
Ms. Fox is founder of Natural Cotton Colours. Her Fox Fibre Colorganic is organic cotton that grows naturally in two colors: brown and green. For her cotton products, that means no dyeing necessary. Fox rediscovered and cross-bred the same colored cotton grown by ancient Peruvians. Levi Strauss and Esprit Ecollection have picked up on it, as well as other retail markets. She also sells to Europe and Japan, where green consumerism is steadier than in the US. Industry finger pointing
Fox talks of the industry as having an "unbelievable mixture of different perspectives." She says that the people who manufacture synthetic fibers point a finger at producers of cotton over pesticides, while cotton producers point a finger at the manufactured fiber producers over nonrenewable resources. Still others ask "Why don't you use hemp?" (Some say hemp is a better agricultural alternative to cotton because it grows in poorer soil without as much need for pesticides. The kind of fiber grown would be unusable for marijuana.)
"My feeling is that what we see is a lot of talk," Fox says, "but in all the fashion things, no one is making the attempt to say: 'Look, the commitment to the environment includes opening up the idea that your color tastes can change a little bit. Why not pick the colors that don't pollute? Why not pick fiber that is organically grown? Farming is a wonderful thing."'
According to Brent Wiseman, coordinator for organic programs with the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA), organic- cotton production makes up less than 1/10 of 1 percent of the cotton sold. However small, the percentage is growing.
Typically, the US market has a problem getting organic cotton out to the consumer because of the price. (Generally, the price of organic cotton is at least 20 percent higher than conventionally grown cotton.)
"We're also looking at good international marketing," Mr. Wiseman says, notably in Japan and Europe. "The green consumer is going crazy over this. It's high profile even though it's just a [drop] in the ocean."
TDA is developing some of the first certification standards for the production of organically produced fibers, which is important because organic cotton can still go through the same chemical processes as conventional cotton at the mills.
"Whenever the public is offered my cotton, they buy it wildly," Fox says. When L.L. Bean offered her Fox Fibre sweater for $39 it sold out in a week and a half. "Why don't we demand from our manufacturers that they buy fibers that were produced ecologically, or produced responsibly?" Fox suggests. "That's what the public needs to be doing."