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Executive Summary

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When browsing many apparel brands' and retailers' web sites or catalogs, it would be easy to get the idea that the way to lessen the impacts the apparel and retailing industries have on the environment is simply to start using organic cotton in a portion of each brand's or store's product offerings. But you probably know that it's not quite as simple as that. We've heard numerous brands and retailers over the last year say that they want their businesses to be sustainable but that they don't really know what that means. Further, they are afraid to talk about what they are doing because they fear their critics will not believe it is enough.

The University of Delaware's Sustainable Apparel Initiative (UDSAI) worked during 2008 and 2009 to develop a set of policies related to environmental sustainability that would begin to provide answers for the following questions:

• What does it mean to be a "sustainable" apparel business?• What must a company do to call itself sustainable?

When we heard companies asking questions such as those listed above, we knew from the context that they were interested in learning how to reduce their environmental footprint while improving their value as businesses. Sustainability is frequently used in many different ways: in reference to the environment, to workers rights, corporate philanthropy, and the long-term viability of the company. Sustainability is also exchanged with phrases like "social responsibility" or "corporate citizenship." When a term is used in so many ways, it creates confusion and is often overused, but rarely understood.

UDSAI defines sustainability as encompassing social, environmental, and financial aspects of a company. Sustainability is the result of responsible business practices and policies that make a positive impact on all people in the value chain from workers to consumers, maintain the environment for future generations, and result in a more productive and viable company. Thus, to be a sustainable apparel business means a company embraces a vision that includes sustainability and that it does the hard work of achieving that vision.

While sustainability is three-dimensional, in this document we focus on the environmental dimension of the term, narrowing our focus to business practices and policies that result in "environmental sustainability." The pursuit of sustainability regarding workers in the apparel industry has carried on for more than a decade. To be sure there is still much work to be done to assure that those making clothing work in safe conditions and have their rights as workers upheld—that the benefits of their work go beyond simple survival. But there are more established resources available to brands and retailers to guide their work on the social dimension of sustainability. Thus, the policies we describe here only reference people when they involve potential health hazards for workers or consumers that are typically subjected to environmental regulations, such as management of toxins and other substances.

Download the Executive Summary in PDF. 

Download the Full Policy Guide in PDF. 

To answer the questions about being an "environmentally sustainable" apparel business, UD faculty and students collaborated with industry professionals involved with environmental sustainability to research best practices. We focused our work on environmental sustainability as it relates to apparel products and the processes involved in the direct supply chain of production. We reviewed hundreds of documents and web sites on environmental sustainability and have developed 10 policies that, if followed, will make the apparel and retailing industries more sustainable. Some of the policies are easy ones that apparel brands and retailers of all sizes can implement quickly and at little cost. Other policies describe practices that are more costly and require long-term strategic planning to carry out.

We propose that apparel brands and retailers:1. Follow all accepted national and international safety and environmental regulations to protect workers and consumers.2. Require all suppliers and vendors to have measurable goals and objectives around environmental sustainability.3. Eliminate waste in all points of the supply chain.4. Understand and reduce carbon emission in sourcing, production, retailing and use.5. Consider and implement end-of-life strategies (recycle, renew, or reuse) when choosing materials, designing, and producing apparel.6. Eliminate excess product manufacturing by balancing supply to demand.7. Include environmental sustainability as part of training, education, and evaluation programs for employees, suppliers, and customers.8. Communicate the corporate environmental sustainability identity internally and externally.9. Develop and implement advertising and marketing strategies that avoid greenwashing.10. Implement an "ACL" approach: When a mistake is made, Admit it, Correct it, and Learn from it.In the remainder of this report, we examine each policy, describing a rationale for following it and providing examples of companies that are successfully implementing the policy.

The policies were well-received by the industry with writing that

"Retailers, brands and manufacturers are repeatedly being told that to be viable in the long-term, they must be as ethical, sustainable and environmentally friendly as possible . . . But what exactly does this mean? . . . . the University of Delaware should be applauded for trying to put the debate into context with its guide to "Creating a More Environmentally Sustainable Apparel Business: Policies for Apparel Brands and Retailers."

Leonie Barry, Editor in Chief


​​Martha Carper, Assistant Professor, The University of Delaware

Huantian Cao, Associate Professor, The University of Delaware

Kelly Cobb, Assistant Professor, The University of Delaware

Marsha Dickson, Professor and chairperson, Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies, The University of Delaware

Rick Horwitch, Vice President, Solutions Business Development & Marketing, Bureau Veritas, Consumer Products Services

Hye-Shin Kim, Professor, The University of Delaware

Steve Lamar, Executive Vice President, American Apparel and Footwear Association

Suzanne Loker, Professor Emerita, Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design, Cornell University

Sharron Lennon, Irma Ayres Professor, The University of Delaware

Rick MacDonald, Considered Apparel Lead, Nike, Inc.

Jennifer McCord, University Honors Program Russell Fellow/ The University of Delaware

Will Phillips, Manager of Corporate Environmental Strategy, Under Armour Performance

Jenna Shaw, Undergraduate honors student, Double major: Apparel Design and Fashion Merchandising, The University of Delaware

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Executive Summary
  • Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies
  • 211 Alison Hall West
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-8713
  • United States Fashion Industry Association