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Your Clothes Are Made by Burning Coal. A New Institute Aims to Change That.

Published: 09 August 2019
6 min read
Aii Programs
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Founded in 2018, the Apparel Impact Institute brings together brands, manufacturers and industry stakeholders to accelerate sustainability initiatives, taking them from small-scale pilots to industry-wide standards. The AII’s first mission is to green textile mills, where the vast majority of fashion’s massive carbon impact takes place. It won’t be easy. Here, TNFI speaks to AII President Lewis Perkins about the challenge of decarbonizing the fashion industry and innovations that are still needed.

Elizabeth L. Cline: The Apparel Impact Institute is dedicated to scaling up sustainability efforts in fashion. How do you plan to go about it?

Perkins: Apparel Impact Institute is intended to bring together best-in-class programs to really look at where there may be multiple solutions. We want to defragment all these different initiatives and bring them under one core set of recommendations. Then, we can scale those programs across a meaningful number of facilities in order to create a tipping point.

Cline: Fashion is responsible for an estimated 8% of global carbon emissions and growing. AII is starting with a mill improvement program to help curb carbon. Why start there?

Perkins: We know that 40% of the of the CO2 comes out of Tier Two suppliers. Generally, when we say Tier Two, we are talking about fabric prep, about dying and printing. It’s the wet process. In this phase, we’re using a lot of chemicals, we’re using a lot of water, and we’re getting it really, really hot. And in order to get that heat, you have to burn coal. That’s generally the issue that we’re trying to address here.

Cline: That’s going to be hard for sustainable fashion advocates to hear. Why is it so difficult to switch to cleaner energy in these mills?

Perkins: You’ve got to burn something under current technologies, which use boilers to heat the water. Most of the CO2 is coming from coal-burning to heat the boilers. But let’s look at the alternatives: Pretend there’s potential to go to natural gas but that natural gas is not available in all parts of the world, and there’s some debate about fracking issues and things like that. And then there’s the potential for biomass, but with biomass it’s really important that you’re not creating a marketplace that drives up the cost of food because you are now using land to grow biomass to burn. Innovation is really needed here. It would be pretty amazing if they could figure out how to run some kind of clean energy through the boiler.

Cline: Can solar be used to power other aspects of the mill operations even it can’t be used to power the boilers?

Perkins: Solar can be installed in the mill for the electricity to run the rest of the mill, yes, but the bulk of the CO2 is coming from the boilers. But could we really push an innovation around renewable and clean energy related to boilers? Is it possible to develop a boiler that solar or geothermal or something could actually get hot enough? Or, maybe we’re looking at it the wrong way. Maybe the technology is different kind of dyes that don’t need high heat. Maybe the technology is waterless dyeing systems. There are a lot of ways to crack this.

Cline: Is the goal to get factories completely off coal and switch to renewables?

Perkins: It’s about driving efficiencies at first. We lean on the methodologies that Linda Greer from the National Resources Defense Council designed with their Clean by Design Program. These programs are going to say things like, Hey, you should install a meter and you should wrap your pipes to recapture the steam and the heat. It’s very low-hanging goals that will help you be more efficient with your coal burning. But at the end of the day, you’re going to also have to come up with a strategy to get off coal. And nobody really knows the best way to do that. It’s going to be a diversified approach.

Cline: Paying for sustainable infrastructure in textile mills can’t be cheap. How does the funding work?

Perkins: The mill improvement program is a 12,000 to $15,000 program cost per facility. We pay for one-third of the cost of the program, the brands pay for a third of the cost to the program, and the mills themselves are asked to enroll and pay for the last third. When mills are ready for deeper investments in clean energy, they borrow from institutional investors generally. And so lenders like HSBC, the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation and others are developing financial tools that help these mills borrow.

Cline: Most brands and retailers don’t own their suppliers and can cut and run whenever they like. How do factories mitigate the risk of making all these improvements?

Perkins: We need the brands to really lean into a longer-term relationship with the facilities in order to de-risk those loans. So in order to borrow and to borrow under good terms, the bank needs to know from a brand, Is this a priority mill to you? Are you still going to be doing business with them in a year, two years, three years?

Cline: The fashion industry is growing so fast and the change we need to achieve is massive. Do you feel optimistic we can reduce the carbon impact of the industry to safe levels?

Perkins: I actually do feel optimistic because I think there’s a really big momentum being spearheaded by some of these CO2 working groups, like the UN Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action and the Science Based Targets initiatives, that we’re linking into. I’ve been working in the apparel space around sustainability for seven years, and I’ve just really seen the curve. I’ve seen the learning curve, I’ve seen the adoption curve, and the interest curve. Now it’s time for the impact curve.