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Sustainable Fabric Sourcing Masterclass with Mark Dodds


Mark Dodds kick-started a much requested talk (29th January 2021) by Fashion-Enter followers on sourcing sustainable fabric, explaining his 20 plus years in the fashion industry supply chain mainly, working with many of the big UK companies, including sourcing fabric for ASOS. He also at one time had his own brand made at Fashion-Enter.

The overview slide showed:  ‘Sustainable Fibre Types; Certification; Limitations of sustainable fibre; Where to Source.’

Four simple bullet points belied the wealth of accumulated knowledge distilled within them, made available for designers, new professionals and stalwarts alike.

Sustainable fabrics are a vast subject that can delve into many areas without coming up for air. Mark emphasised key questions the designer needs to ask themselves, namely: why they are on a sustainable fabric journey and what is required to satisfy that quest. An answer that is likely an amalgam based on their own judgement, the market’s varying demand and supply and the professional industry bodies’ determination of sustainable. Integrity in fulfilment of what constitutes truly sustainable is often a moveable fibre feast, depending on country, farm, mill, weaver, factory, designer and user.

Fibre types for sustainable fabrics include: Cotton, Polyester, Viscose, Lyocell, Nylon, Acrylic, Wool, Silk.

The presentation intro is geared around what would you do for your brand and its sustainability maintenance? “What does it mean to say sustainable, at the level of raw materials?” asks Mark. Is there full visibility of the factory? The power source? Packaging. Shipping? Are there volume, weight considerations to minimise carbon footprint? You may use organic cotton fibre for example, but then ultimately package it in plastic, compromising the original intent.

How far do you go for your definition of sustainable?

This throws up the question of ‘Do you have a sustainable policy?’ In a sense, the entire process is one of (self) cross-examination of levels of acceptability, according to one’s own definition and presumably, financing (recycled and sustainable is more expensive), as well as the limitations of choice, negating full sustainability in many circumstances. The more you learn about what is available, the more the decision is placed on your discretion – what do you accept as a sustainable fibre?  For example, when sourcing from a fabric mill that may have 100s of sustainable fabrics, according to a host of different criteria, “you need to tell them what you consider is acceptable,” says Mark. 

Next up is the ‘measurement’ of sustainable and how you may provide evidence to yourself and your customers. Do you rely on the invoice from the mill, or as Mark suggests a certificate from an independent body to verify it? Wearing sustainable like a badge because it’s somehow vogue, or may get you more customers, is not what it’s about. A recent report suggested a high percentage of so-called ethical, green products are anything but, with either lazy tagging or knowingly deceptive labelling. A practice that one hopes increased standardization will help to eradicate, alongside naming and shaming. At the most basic level, Mark asks, “is launching a new brand into an already saturated market, a sustainable premise?”

The selection for which fibre to choose started with ‘Cotton.’ Ubiquitous, global fabric, but as Mark states “very difficult to source organic cotton sustainably, with its very convoluted supply chain.” The wisdom of using the expertise of someone like BCI (Better Cotton Initiative) as a trade body can help save time and money trying to unravel supply chains you are not familiar with.  The downside of BCI is they are able to provide some of the ethical, sustainable criteria by direct engagement at the farmer level and beyond, but you will never be able to prove the cotton is not mixed with unethical, supply-sourced cotton. Their ‘credit’ based purchasing system, once you register on their platform (approx. £500), allows you to buy credits to draw from a pool of cotton, they know contains sustainable sources.

Ultimately, as Mark says it means you can say “We use BCI cotton in our products, no more.” And as one of the Q&As from an attendee highlighted – “so, it could still be from China (unwanted slave labour region)?” “Yes”, said Mark, “unless you stipulate restrictions within your purchasing from particular countries or regions to stop this possibility from happening. There is now a backlash on Chinese cotton – not a boycott.” Ultimately the aim for BCI is to have all cotton, BCI approved standard. https://bettercotton.org/

The darling of the sustainable fabric world and Mark’s recommendation, is  ‘organic cotton’ – a product that uses natural fertilizers, zero pesticides, and whose labour and growing are ethically managed. https://www.global-standard.org/ Still important to establish the dyeing process and finishing match the same environmental standards. Mark highlighted the ‘GOTS’ (the global organic test standard) that you should look and ask for, to ensure assessment of the full process including water use.  Fairtrade was mentioned, as less prevalent and superseded by organic and GOTS now. www.fairtrade.org.uk/

Another popular fabric is ‘recycled’ cotton. Popular because it is most readily available, sourced from the by-products of the industry – the cutting room waste, off-cuts, that are shredded and spun back into yarn. The challenge is whether it is pre-consumer or not. Post consumer is the harder part of the supply chain to collect garments from and labour intensive with increased carbon footprint (vans driving around collecting the garments). Again the rule of thumb is if you have a GOTS certificate from the factory it is sourced from, you can use a GOTS label, using their guidelines for swing tags.

Polyester got short shrift. What to say? Oil based, not very good for the environment and won’t as a result of oil’s declining use be around forever. Question is what will replace it, or will the default be from existing range of fibres? It is likely we will invent something for our age, more ethically sound. Get on with it please.

Recycled polyester, e.g. as endorsed by ‘Repreve’ https://repreve.com/ or ‘Seaqual’ https://seaqual.org/ (de facto industry standards) has more or less the same quality as polyester, except for dyeing. Must have a licence agreement to use the aforementioned brand names on the swing tags. Some polyesters are problematic, like elastain because they are only 20% recyclable. Any growing demand however, based on a limited supply is likely to lead to increase in prices Mark warns.

Another popular eco-friendly fabric is Viscose, taken from trees and plants. First question to ask – Are the forests well managed? How do you source viscose that is sustainably farmed? FSC is the most common standard for a sustainable forest. ‘Bamboo’ as a plant (grass) is very fast growing and occupies a small footprint, and is by definition sustainable. Can have the FSC logo on bamboo also. It is less common so has cache, feels more silky-smooth to touch as garments. The issue is bamboo is a viscose, which means chemicals will be used in the process. Was it a ‘dirty process’ and can you determine which factory? Are they recycling products they use and taking care of the environment?

Mark highlighted positively two types of viscose that are traceable to factory, in a ‘closed-loop’ recyclable process: Ecovero www.ecovero.com/ and Livaeco. www.livaeco.com/. Recycled viscose will be more expensive, driven by pricing and brand. https://renewcell.com/

There’s a roll call of fibre types that may be increasingly unfamiliar to some. ‘Lyocell’ for example – a fibre that feels silkier, more expensive and tends to be used for womenswear and nightwear also because of its draping quality. ‘Tencel’ is commonly available spun and with filament, often seen in the supply chain. The downside is it comes from virgin rainforests, but is nevertheless 100% traceable. www.tencel.com/ ‘Refibra’, a version of tencel from pre-and post consumer use. www.tencel.com/refibra ‘Modal’ and ‘Birla Excel’ are big fibre producers and high visibility of source. www.birlacellulose.com/birla-excel

A fabric name that conjures up all manner of associations from the past – ‘Nylon’ used mostly in sportswear and swimwear, less so in fashion wear now. It’s available as a recycled fabric from fishing nets, same quality, but less common and more expensive. www.econyl.com/ and www.fulgar.com/eng/products/o-nova

Acrylic’ – commonly known as a substitute wool product used for hats and scarves and made from polyester. One notable recycled brand: www.polylana-yarn.com.

Our current winter favourite of course: Wool. *A lot of British wool is used for men’s heavy coats and heavier suits. Mark asserts the key questions are provenance: Which farm? Is it a bi-product? If it’s ‘organic wool’, how are the animals treated on the farm? What kind of environment, how are the animals sheared and transported? What chemicals are used to treat the wool? (wool is very coarse and needs chemicals to treat it)? What is the ‘locale’? In Scotland Mark informs, most of the sheep farming is easier to trace. Different types of wool include ‘Cashmere’ from goats at the luxury end and ‘Merino Wool’ finer, less scratchy, traceable from Australia, N Zealand typically, though not particularly sustainable because of the travel and shipping involved. ‘Recycled’ wool  is similar to cotton in that it’s taken from the cutting waste or the spinning factory that spews out wool fibres everywhere when making yarn. The rule of thumb for all things wool Mark stresses is to go to Woolmark-the Wool Company – with experts on hand to answer all your questions. www.soilassociation.org/organic-living/fashion-textiles/organic-wool/

* A fabric that Ermenegildo Zegna  whole-heartedly thanked UK suit makers for, (taking the proverbial) as he launched the lightweight silk/ mohair options to great global success.

From India and China to the steeped-history of London’s Huguenot silk weaving factories in East London, the ubiquitous ‘Silk’ is highly desired for womenswear and easy to procure. However, not especially ethical when they boil the silk worm inside the pupa as part of the extraction process, contrasted with ‘Peace Silk’ naturally grown, without harming the worm, with longer dwell time harvesting and more labour-time intensive. (Like turkeys not voting for Xmas).

An interesting, yet much less used fabric is ‘Linen or Hemp’, exported from countries like Lithuania. It’s easy to grow, uses less pesticides, very durable, washes and lasts longer without degradation and is bio-degradable. www.mastersoflinen.com/

Other sustainable options include ‘Bluesign’ as the highest level dye house accreditation and signifies minimum impact on the environment. www.bluesign.com/en Overall, Mark’s advice for small brands is to focus on branded viscose fibres for guidance and confidence in what you are getting,  such as Canopy. https://canopyplanet.org/

The received wisdom and accumulated knowledge a designer may acquire ultimately will be made meaningful and transferable by ‘Certification.’ As Mark describes it, “certification is the chain of custody, for every single stage of the production process in sustainable fabric.” Or known as ‘Transaction Certificates’ issued to every person in the chain, as they pass it onto the next person e.g. farmer, mill, spinner, weaver, dyer types of interconnected relationships. It’s also important to differentiate ‘scope certificates’, and to be aware of licence fees associated with using certified industry brands.

There are very specific ‘Challengesfacing the user sourcing sustainable fabrics. The MOQs  – minimum order quantities, can be much higher, prompting Mark to suggest buying sustainable fabrics that have already been produced. Not to be confused with ‘stock-supported services’ not made from sustainable fibre.

Quality’ may be variable depending on fibre. Recycled wool for example tends to be lower quality as it can be blended with other fibres, but may also be mixed with virgin-wool to improve overall quality.

Availability’ can be determined by demand, as more people want sustainable fabrics, pushing prices up and opening up the debate on ‘Cost’ – the unspoken subject that everyone is aware of. “We don’t pay enough for clothes. The price is not representative of the work that goes into them.” Mark said, quoting a long held industry axiom. Sustainable is more expensive, but what is a ‘fair price?’ A subject worthy of another webinar.

I imagine for many designers, short of time, contacts and reach,  the key question of ‘Where to Source?’ is an important first step. As a small brand this is very difficult, partly because the traditional Fabric trade fairs are closed, (Premiere Vision, and Future Fabrics Expo for example) now online only and because of the MOQs. However, suppliers with a sustainable focus, more high end, may be more willing to service a smaller brand.

To get inside the sourcing mystique, going direct to the raw materials suppliers like Lenzing, Berla, Unifi, Seaqual can also be helpful. You have to say what fibre you want in your garment. With wholesalers there may be no minimum quantity, but hard to trace sustainability.

The webinar presentation ended with a flurry of questions from earnest designers and a cross-section of industry professionals, including, “How sustainable is dead stock?” Which for some, if it’s being kept away from landfill may be sufficient to satisfy the criteria of sustainability. Fabric industry guru Mark sensibly adds a buyer beware caveat, “Always ask, why it is dead stock? Usually a reason, and often quality.” Words of wisdom to put closure on a thoroughly enjoyable and information-loaded webinar. Nice one Mark.

By Paul Markevicius

Excellent feedback included:

“Very informative without information overload.”

“It was all useful. Also the questions asked by the others and then answers given was also very helpful as you may not have considered asking the question.”

“Very impressed.” – Vivienne, lecturer in Fashion & Textiles

“A lot of up-to-date, useful and applicable knowledge for the industry.”

“Very professional, very well organised, nothing wasted, information-packed 2 hours and he answered Qs along the way with ease. Highly credible, an asset to Fashion-Enter masterclass series.” – Janine

“Brilliant! Very informative and helpful for future sourcing.”

“Found it most useful the straight forward way in which Mark explained.” Helen, Technical Consultant 

“Very well organised and Mark Dodds was so engaging, can’t believe he was talking for nearly two hours!”

“As a bespoke maker and educator I found it really useful. It built on my previous knowledge gained over many years and helps to keep me up-to-date with developments.” – Di

“I have learnt how to track the sustainability of fabrics across the supply chain.”

Did you miss this masterclass? Due to popular demand Mark Dodds will return for another online session 23rd April 2021. Tap here to find out more and book.

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