Sustainability Conversations

Customers are Looking for the Ultimate Trust Factor

Mentor

MeiLin Wan

VP, Textile Sales, Providing molecular business solutions for traceability, transparency and trust in supply chains

Many brands want to be seen to be responsible and sustainable, but is the perception close to what the reality is? In the Fashion Transparency Index report 2019, out of 200 brands, “43% of brands are publishing a sustainable materials strategy or roadmap, only 29% are disclosing the percentage of their products that are made from sustainable materials. 54% of brands are publishing goals on improving environmental impacts, but only 40% publish goals on improving human rights.”

In response to increasing demand amongst consumers for sustainable, eco-friendly products, “green advertising” claims are everywhere. Products that are not typically known to be environmentally friendly such as ethanol fuel, airline flights, non-hybrid cars,  and even “biodegradeable dog poop bags”, all have become eco-conscious and quickly.

Whilst the use of “greenwashing” is not new, its use has become more prevalent, and for consumers, brands and manufacturers, it is worrisome that many environmental attributes of products—for instance, “sustainability”—cannot be verified, even after consumers use products claiming to possess those attributes. This poses the question: how do you prove it?

Transparency in an Uncertain World

People all around the world want to live healthier lives in environments that are safe, clean and sustainable. According to the Safer Report (2018, p 13), the three driving factors to the adoption of safer chemistries in the textile apparel sector related to the:

  1. Call for Transparency from consumers, retailers and advocacy community
  2. Increasing Public Awareness of environmental pollution associated with the manufacturing of textile apparel products
  3. Adoption by many brands and retailers in the textile apparel space of the circular economy language, concepts and frameworks

Even with all of these new initiatives, goals and policies, the opacity of supply chains still prevails. While it may appear on the surface to be clear, the complexity of supply chains, and the degree to which brands and retailers are willing to disclose details to the consumers is still uncertain. Furthermore, how much visibility brands and retailers want to have into their own supply chains is also uncertain. What is certain, is that the gap between what consumers perceive and the reality of what  brands want to disclose exists, and the question is whether there is a way to help “bridge the gap”?

“I Recycle it, Then What?”

While there is a plethora of information on the why consumers should recycle but there is gap on how products should be recycled, and what happens to the recycled material afterward? For example in a Call2Recycle study (2018) on battery recycling, “.. two-thirds of U.S. consumers are aware of battery recycling in their communities, while only 41% participate. In terms of knowledge of rechargeable battery recycling, 58% of those surveyed were aware of such programs with only 25% recycling used rechargeable batteries. Despite 86% of the population being within 10 miles of a Call2Recycle drop-off location that accepts rechargeable batteries and cellphones free of charge, there is still a knowledge gap on battery recycling.” The need to educate and activate the consuming public is needed.

But that’s still not enough.. According to Popular Science, whilst  recycling rates in the US have consistently increased since the 1960s, according to Environmental Protection Agency data. As of 2015, 34 percent of waste was recycled, most of it is non-recyclable, or are too contaminated to be used as recyclable materials, especially if they are processed outside of the US.

“When we collect the material, it has as much as 25 percent contamination, but by the time we sell it it needs to have less than one percent,” says Susan Robinson, senior director of sustainability and policy for Waste Management, which operates 100 recycling sorting facilities in North America. 

What can we make from recycled bottles?

While it may appear that the recycling of PET bottles is a recent phenomenon, according to a Recycle Nation, “the first bottled soda water in America was created in 1835, plastic bottles for soft drinks weren’t in use until 1970, and the first PET bottle was made three years later and patented. By 1990s companies like Coca-Cola began blending recycled plastic into its plastic beverage bottles. (Source: 2011 Recycle Nation) By 2008, the recycling rate of plastic bottles reaches 27%, which translates to around 2.4 billion pounds of plastic. By 2012 – The annual consumption of water from plastic bottles in the U.S. hits 9.67 billion gallons, which is estimated to be around 30.8 gallons per person. More recently, water bottle sales have reached $11.8 billion (Source: Shini USA)

Alana Samuels (March 2019) stated, “Americans are going to have to come to terms with a new reality: All those toothpaste tubes and shopping bags and water bottles that didn’t exist 50 years ago need to go somewhere, and creating this much waste has a price we haven’t had to pay so far.”

A plastic bottle becomes a jacket, an aluminum can a bicycle. When consumers are reminded of the products that their recyclables can be turned into they are more likely to recycle, according to researchers at Penn State and Boston College (Science Daily July 2019).

“Recycling rates in the United States are too low,” said Karen Winterich, professor of marketing and a Frank and Mary Smeal Research Fellow, Smeal College of Business, Penn State. “For example, in 2015, only 25 percent of waste was recycled. Our research suggests that recycling rates can improve if consumers are exposed to signage and messaging that shows recyclables are transformed into new products. We hope to change the conversation from ‘Where does this go?’ as consumers question whether an item is recyclable to “What can this make?’ with consumers automatically thinking about products made from the material they recycle.”

If you claim it, you own it..

Today, with increased scrutiny and awareness, the potential ways to use and reuse recycled PET is continuously expanding, specifically the use of recycled PET fiber and filament yarn in the textile apparel sector. Recycling fiber can potentially save energy, water, chemicals as well as reduce waste and textiles in landfills and incinerators. That said, it still begs the question, “how do you know that the recycled fiber is used in the final product?”

Recent controversies over the mislabeling of fish, deforestation resulting from the growth of palm oil plantations, scandals over the use of forced labor in supply chains, or mislabelling of Egyptian Cotton, are just a few examples of the pressure that companies are under to improve the integrity of their supply chains. Leading brands such as IKEA have set 2020 targets for the use of recycled PET.

“We realise that aiming to replace all virgin polyester with recycled by 2020 is a bold target, and we know that it´s not an easy road ahead of us. But we are committed to ending our dependency on virgin fossil materials by 2030, and this is one important step on the way.” says Nils Månsson, Material & Innovation Deployment Leader at IKEA of Sweden.

At the 2019 Traceability workshop held by AAFA, it was clear that many brands were not only interested on technology developments for sustainable fibers such as recycled polyester, but more importantly, how to get started in the use of rPET in their apparel products and collections.

Charles Gaenslen, CEO of Loftex USA Home, spoke about how his company incorporated traceability into their business and emphasized the importance of taking the first step toward developing a circular program. The Loftex cotton-polyester blend terry towels feature polyester derived from 100 percent post-consumer recycled polyester. The recycled polyester is known as rPET (polyethylene terephthalate). The recycled polyester fibers are blended with cotton so the towel has the best of both fibers. The blend provides superior absorbency, dries quickly in the dryer and on the towel rod, is resistant to odor and mildew, and stays soft wash after wash. By using Applied DNA’s CertainT platform, the recycled nature of the rPET component of the towel can be verified by detecting an indelible molecular tag, thus ensuring rPET authenticity and origin in the finished product.

“As we became aware of the global authenticity issue and the increasing consumer demand to know where their products come from, we searched for a solution that would address this need quickly,” said Charles Gaenslen, CEO of Loftex Home. “Applied DNA’s CertainT exceeded our expectations. We adopted the CertainT platform not only because it aligned with our commitment to innovation and our product-development stream, but also, it provided the opportunity to bring consumers sustainable products that are authentic and traceable to origin.”

Another company, GHCL, created a range of sustainable and traceable bed linen under the REKOOP brand name.  REKOOP bedding is made by blending cotton with polyester fiber obtained from recycling post-consumer PET bottles. The concept is sustainable, durable and free of any hazardous chemicals. There are 36 PET bottles used for the production of every 250 TC (thread count) REKOOP sheet set (60% cotton 40% recycled PET). This helps in the reduction of landfill space, crude oil consumption and carbon emissions in the atmosphere.

“ Consistent with global sustainability and the circular economy, we provide the first fully source-verified recycled PET bedding product line using CertainT, Applied DNA’s proprietary traceability system that tags, tests, tracks the original r-PET pellets to finished products. We produce a wide range of synthetic yarns from polyester, viscose and other high-end yarns which now utilize the CertainT system for full traceability. The ability to source and buy CertainT yarns made from verified recycled PET fiber is a unique offering that GHCL can provide to customers globally,” stated Manu Kapur, President and CEO of GHCL Home Textiles.

In a World filled with Uncertainty..

In today’s uncertain times, consumers are demanding more of their purchases. There is a keen sensitivity to how products are manufactured and how original fibers or raw materials are handled – especially as it relates to in-home use.  The openness and transparency in the way products are made enable consumers to feel good about what they are buying. They are looking for the ultimate trust factor.

In 2017, Applied DNA Sciences launched a traceability solution platform known as CertainT®. The multi-service platform provides integrated, streamlined access to Applied DNA’s end-to-end products and services for confirming a product’s authenticity and origin with Trust, Transparency and Traceability.  Specifically, the CertainT Tag-Test-Track platform, includes the creation of a unique molecular tag, forensic testing and analysis, quality assurance, and traceability reporting as products are processed from raw fibers to finished goods.

CertainT Supply Chain Platform consolidates proven individual elements of Applied DNA’s portfolio with a business-specific lens. The CertainT Platform will be first incorporated into customer products in textile, apparel, footwear, pharmaceuticals, personal care and agricultural-related products.

“The shift towards a circular economy requires innovative business models and entrepreneurial partners. Platforms like CertainT will help companies, such as Loftex and GHCL, continue to produce innovative products utilizing an efficient and trusted traceability system with a fair return. Traceability and transparency, combined with trust in supply chains builds consumer confidence,” stated MeiLin Wan, VP Textile Sales, Applied DNA Sciences.