It’s Easy Being Green: The Eco-Alternative Apparel Market

In recent years, many apparel companies have started to consider eco-alternative apparel options. 

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When it comes to apparel, consumers have always focused on features like comfort, style, and durability. In recent years, many buyers have also started to consider the impact their clothing has on the planet.

Niche manufacturers have been creating eco-friendly products for decades. But today, even the largest traditional fiber and apparel companies have started using sustainable materials to address public demand.

“I think the tide is changing and more people are demanding to know where and how products are made,” says Jerry Wheeler, president of Ecocentric Brands. “From a retail perspective, it’s on everybody’s radar, from fast-fashion commodity stores to high-end department stores.”

Mark Trotzuk, president of Boardroom Custom Clothing, agrees. “It’s not going away. In fact, it’s getting bigger.”

Selling green

As the eco-fiber movement gains momentum, apparel decorators are left wondering how to incorporate these fabrics into their offerings.

Most important, manufacturers say, is understanding that sustainable fibers perform (wash, wear, and print) on par with their traditional counterparts.

“It all comes down to quality,” Wheeler says. “If you chose poor-quality recycled polyester, for example, you’ll have the same problems as you’d have with poor-quality conventional polyester.”

Decorators should also be aware that sustainable fabrics tend to cost about 5 to 10 percent more than traditional versions, but manufacturers warn that writing eco-fibers off based only on price could be a short-sighted mistake.

“In the past few years, demand for organic cotton has increased by double digits, so if you’re not offering organic, you’re leaving money on the table,” says Kriya Stevens, brand manager for Econscious.

Offering earth-friendly materials alongside traditional fabrics can open new markets for decorators, says Nurain Alicharan, social media and PR coordinator for Alternative Apparel. “Incorporating eco into the mix allows for targeting a new audience segment that cares about the environment and looks for sustainable options when making purchases.”

The appeal of eco-alternative fibers now extends well beyond the stereotypical tree-hugger type. Many parents are also interested in making changes, big and small, to leave a lasting legacy for their children.

“Many people are more conscientious about how they are treating the environment and have concerns about what their children’s lives will be like in the future,” Trotzuk says. “For them, it’s a no-brainer to choose a recycled or organic fiber instead of a virgin or traditional fiber because there’s less impact to the environment.”

The fabrics also appeal to younger people, including the Millennial Generation, for whom “green” is not a new concept.

“We find that decorators who offer sustainable apparel and accessories position themselves as environmentally responsible in the minds of end users,” Stevens says. “Their business benefits, especially with younger customers who have grown up with the notion of environmental stewardship as a natural part of their daily lives.”

Finally, “sustainability” is quickly becoming a big buzzword among corporations. Any decorator who deals with promotional products would be wise to have eco-friendly options, Trotzuk says.

“Companies that have policies with respect to the environment will probably want to make that message clear with their marketing materials,” he says. “Buying sustainable promotional products is a better way of getting the word out than buying a T-shirt for one-day use.”

Guiding these corporate clients to eco-alternative fibers doesn’t require a hard-sell approach. The decorator can simply have a conversation about the benefits of aligning a corporation’s brand with environmentally responsible products and the goodwill that gesture can create with their customers.

“You’ll look like you’re ahead of the curve and that you care,” Trotzuk says. “If care and are providing options without pressuring, most people will do the right thing.”

Defining green

Words like “eco-alternative,” “earth-friendly,” “sustainable,” and “green” are showing up on clothing labels with greater regularity. These umbrella terms are used to describe fibers that are considered more environmentally responsible than traditional options.

“Doing something sustainably means adopting practices today that will not deplete or destroy resources for future generations,” Stevens says.

Stevens adds that there isn’t one perfect fiber. Rather, there are “better” options based on a variety of factors. Is it made from a recycled or quickly renewable resource? Were no chemicals used in cultivating the raw material? Does the manufacturer take measures to reduce its water consumption, pollution, and carbon footprint?

In the apparel industry, the most common eco-friendly fibers include recycled polyester, organic cotton, bamboo rayon, and hemp, as well as any of these blended with traditional fibers.

Unfortunately, there are manufacturers and sales reps who knowingly or unwittingly pass off products as being more environmentally preferable than they really are, a practice that is often called “greenwashing.” This can leave apparel decorators who want to do the right thing feeling overwhelmed.

“It can be challenging to tell the difference between what is actually green and what is just a claim,” Alicharan says. “We suggest asking a lot of questions and doing your research.”

Never take an environmental claim at face value. When dealing with wearables, there are several questions that can help separate fact from fiction:

?       What percentage of the fiber content is organic or recycled?

?       What makes this fiber more environmentally friendly than a conventional version?

?       Is the product designed to have a long lifecycle?

“If they don’t know the answers, or can’t get them for you, that’s not a good sign,” Wheeler says.

Trotzuk suggests calling the distributor or supplier to discuss sustainability matters. The rep should be able to explain the issue in simple terms, or quickly get answers to any specific questions. “That one phone call is so easy, and you will get so much from it,” he says.

In addition to asking some basic questions, don’t be afraid to ask for proof of any green claims. There are many third-party certifications available for sustainable fibers, including Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) for organic cotton and Blue Sign for recycled polyester.

Having this documentation is important for more than just your own peace of mind. Sustainability managers for large corporations will often demand these independent audits or certifications before investing in promotional products.

While on the phone with the supplier, Wheeler also suggests asking the rep to provide a few interesting facts about the product. Consumers may not care about fiber percentages, but they could get excited to learn their T-shirt is made of cotton from Lubbock or that it saves six 20-ounce bottles from the landfill.

“What’s going to make it interesting to the end user?” he says.

Finally, Trotzuk says it’s time for apparel decorators and consumers to stop thinking one T-shirt doesn’t make a difference. Every green purchase is a step in the right direction, he says.

“Who cares if it’s just a small amount?” Trotzuk says. “Our civilization won’t survive if we keep using oil-based fuels. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. Each person doing a small amount equals a big difference. That’s how it works.”

Becky Mollenkamp

Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer based in St. Louis, Mo. Her work has appeared in Better Homes & Gardens, Prevention, and a variety of B2B publications. In her free time, she runs a food and music blog at cookingwithvinyl.com. 

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