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Apparel Suppliers Seek Sustainable Business  image

Apparel Suppliers Seek Sustainable Business 

By Mark Seavy

Sustainability was top of mind for suppliers at the recent Magic NY show. But how sustainable strategies are being defined and applied—and just how widespread the consumer demand is for sustainable products—remains open to debate.

Sustainable credentials are at the top of Millennial and Gen Z consumers’ shopping lists, suppliers said, whether that comes through the materials used or the manufacturing process. But for consumers 35 years and older, sustainability often carries less currency.

That is due in part to the retail price premium (30% and up) for the application of sustainable materials like plastic water bottles, organic cotton, and vegan leather. For example, women’s apparel supplier Zig Zag Asian Collection’s jumpers, skirts, tops, and other apparel are made with organic cotton sourced from Nepal and have a 40% higher cost versus the standard cotton, Founder Afrid Ghoffrani said.

And apparel company Recycled Karma Brands launched a Green Label t-shirt collection in 2019 featuring music artists, each made with plastic derived from five recycled water bottles. The range’s more involved manufacturing process added 30% to production costs versus standard cotton t-shirts, said Jene Park, CEO & Creative Director at Recycled Karma Brands. However, Recycled Karma Brands priced its Green Label collection similarly to standard t-shirts and sold them at a loss to promote sustainability, Park said. But it eventually had to discontinue the line, Park said.

“Sustainability is definitely recognized by consumers, but it is not for everybody because the price point is higher and as long as there are other materials and they have a choice, 75% will choose the cheaper product,” said Ghoffrani, noting that organic cotton apparel accounts for about 25% of Zig Zag’s annual sales. “But there are consumers out there looking for organic cotton and the people that are in that community will buy it and the business is starting to move more and more in that direction.”

The sense of community among consumers—combined with a more mature manufacturing process —has narrowed the price gap for blue jeans, said Lauren Morris, Director of Sales at A3 Apparel, which sells under the 1822 Denim brand. A3 uses Lenzing Group’s Tencel (wood pulp-based fibers derived from birch and eucalyptus trees) and Unifi’s Repreve plastic fibers created from recycled plastic water bottles. A3 also attaches Tencel and Repreve hang tags to its jeans, which also feature a “Re: Denim” tag. 1822 Denim prices its Tencel and Repreve-based jeans at $69-$79. Sustainable materials-based jeans account for about 40% of 1822 Denim’s annual sales, Morris said.

Vegan outerwear supplier Wuxly also launched preorders earlier this month for a 14-piece licensed Ghostbusters collection of crewneck sweatshirts, t-shirts, and pullover hoodies priced $60 (caps) to $1,845 (parka). Some of the pieces were made with Dupont’s 37% plant-based Sorona material.

“We have a community of consumers that will consistently buy the jeans, but it is also an education process because otherwise they might not understand the difference,” Morris said. More environmentally inclined U.S. states like Colorado, Hawaii, and Vermont are among the top-selling U.S. states for 1822 Denim  jeans made with sustainable materials, she said.

Similar communities are formed around other sustainable materials like vegan leather. Pop star Katy Perry, who announced plans to adopt a vegan lifestyle, features vegan leather in her footwear line, the rights to which she took back from Global Brands Group in 2021 after it shut down. But Perry’s name (as opposed to the range’s use of vegan leather) remains the top draw for the product, said Diane DellaRocca, an account executive at Katy Perry Footwear.

Yet vegan leather, which doesn’t contain animal by-products in manufacturing, uses polyurethane chemicals in production. German manufacturer Mainpol’s Freaky Nation is entering the U.S. market for the first time with leather jackets treated with vegetable dye derived from tree bark, fruits, and leaves as opposed to chromium. The jackets have been available in Europe since 2018.

“Consumers are willing to pay a little bit more for sustainability, but not 50-60% more,” a Freaky Nation spokesperson said. “They like vegetable dye-treated leather but I am not sure they understand it. It is still an education process both for consumers and retailers. It is a new industry, and it will just take time to mature.”

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