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ECO-LOGIC Fashion series (4)

Why it’s important to use sustainable materials like organic cotton (and why that alone isn’t enough)

A conversation with Liesl Truscott, Materials Director at Textile Exchange, und Nanda Bergstein, Head of Vendor Relations & Sustainability Non Food at Tchibo.

Whether the resource in question is cotton, wood or coffee: for Tchibo, there is no alternative to using sustainable resources. We’ve already made quite a bit of progress on our path to becoming a 100% sustainable business – yet a lot more effort is still needed. And ‘merely’ using sustainable resources isn’t enough … In conversation with Liesl Truscott and Nanda Bergstein, I try to find out why.

Liesl, you work for Textile Exchange. For those of us who aren’t familiar with Textile Exchange: what does your organization do?

Liesl Truscott: Textile Exchange is an international non-profit that works to make the textiles industry more sustainable. To achieve this, we work with everyone that plays a part in the creation of textiles – from clothing to towels to linens and more.

Our mission is to inspire people and promote sustainable methods in the textile supply chain. Our focus is on minimising the negative repercussions of the global textiles industry and maximising the positive effects.


How would you define a ‘sustainable product’?

Liesl Truscott: In the past I would have said, a sustainable product causes less damage to the environment or to humans than a conventional product. But today, my definition goes beyond that: products should have a positive effect on the environment and on society. For example, it’s no longer just about reducing emissions or about increasing carbon sequestration, the ‘binding’ of carbon. Today, there is even more of a focus on the socio-economic dimension of sustainability, because sustainable development will only be possible if everyone involved in production benefits from it.


Nanda, how does Tchibo define a sustainable product?

Nanda Bergstein: The term ‘sustainability’ originally comes from forestry and stipulates that the amount of wood taken from a forest must not exceed the amount it can regrow. A sustainable forest is one that is carefully managed so that as trees are felled they are replaced with seedlings that eventually grow into mature trees.

‘Sustainability’ as the term is used today means operating in such a way that the needs of today’s generation are met without depriving future generations of what they need to live.

So for us at Tchibo, sustainability is about reducing negative repercussions on the one hand, but in the longer term it is much more about producing our products in harmony with humans and nature. Liesl is absolutely right: only if all people and the environment profit from production can there be truly sustainable business and sustainable development in the long term.


Why is it important to source sustainable materials?

Liesl Truscott: If you get right down to it, textile companies have their roots in fields, in forests, and deep in the Earth, e.g. in the case of cotton, cellulose fibres, or synthetic fibres. Therefore, they also play an important role on the path to a stable, regenerative and circular economic system. Procuring sustainable fibres and materials is an essential part of the change and a significant step for companies to increase their effectiveness.

Brand-name and retail companies can make a great contribution to a sustainable future through the way they influence fibre and material production to its point of origin in the field or forest, and in the entire cycle.

Nanda Bergstein: And that is exactly why we source sustainable materials. As we see it, there is no alternative on our way to 100% sustainability.


Why do people work with certifications and standards in this area?

Liesl Truscott: The integrity of products is at the heart of sustainability. Certification to standards is therefore one of the key ways to ensure that a product claim, such as ‘this product contains organic cotton’, is correct and valid and verifiable. Certifications confirm compliance with a certain benchmark, so to speak.

Nanda Bergstein: For us as a company it is still difficult to know for all our products where and under what conditions, say, the cotton was planted, cultivated, harvested and processed. Certifications help us answer these questions.

However, we are also aware that certifications have their limits. They often refer only to parts of the supply chain, to individual, focussed sustainability criteria and their effects. Because we are committed to becoming a 100% sustainable business, we know that we need to develop projects that go beyond the certification of materials, such as our partnership with the Appachi ECO-LOGIC project in South India.

Liesl Truscott: One could say that certifications are increasingly becoming seen as basic standards. Beyond complying with standards, pursuing continuous improvement and identifying actual improvements are becoming more and more important elements in development. Ultimately, the goal is to build transparent and trustworthy partnerships that enable companies to manage risks and build strong trade relationships that share the value of the relationship fairly. I think the partnership between Appachi ECO-LOGIC and Tchibo is an excellent example of this development.


Nanda, why is sustainable cotton so important for Tchibo?

Nanda Bergstein: Cotton is one of the most important natural fibres in the world. For us too, the raw material is very important and makes up a large part of our textile range.

At the same time, the cultivation of cotton is very resource-intensive and is often neither environmentally nor socially compatible, especially in conventional cultivation. For example, a lot of water is consumed, and pesticides are used that can damage the health of cotton farmers and harvest workers. That is why the procurement of cotton from sustainable sources is without alternative for us. It forms an important part of our commitment and efforts.

Already, 80% of our cotton textiles are made of or with sustainable cotton. We are the world’s number 3 buyer of organic cotton.

Liesl Truscott: Brand-name manufacturers have become much more aware of the challenges and problems in cotton cultivation. But much more important: companies are also much more aware of their role in being able to change this. In recent years, more and more sustainability initiatives have been launched in the cotton sector that also give companies a much wider range of ways to get involved on a bigger scale. The next big step – a project called ‘Cotton 2040’ – is already being developed: an agreement on a common vision for sustainable cotton. This consensus has already been established in the coffee sector, another key product at Tchibo, and we want to achieve the same in the cotton sector.


Liesl, from your perspective: What responsibility does a company like Tchibo bear?

Liesl Truscott: Tchibo is definitely in the vanguard when it comes to using sustainable fibres and materials. This position of leadership empowers Tchibo to live its corporate values, tell its story, and pave the way for others.

At the same time, this causes stakeholder expectations to grow, along with the duty and responsibility to keep becoming better. When a company strikes new paths and takes hundreds of farmers along with it, it’s an incredible responsibility, but the opportunity to achieve an incredible amount of good is a fantastic reward.

Nanda Bergstein: It really is a balancing act for us: we need industry solutions and innovative new approaches. As an industry, we still have a lot to learn, and that can only happen if you don’t immediately fall into public disrepute for every mistake.

At the same time, we also need our customers if we want to be successful with sustainable materials and products in the medium term. That means we have to talk about what we do. And that’s not as easy as it sounds.

Liesl Truscott: I’ve been observing Tchibo’s efforts over the past few years, and have in some cases been involved with them myself. I’ve watched the company develop its sustainability strategy, set ambitious goals, and start implementing the strategy. And from what I have seen, Tchibo has always been very prudent in what it does: by focusing on a portfolio approach for sustainable cotton. At the same time, the idea of taking the customer along on this path with openness and transparency is an impressive approach: from product labels and the placement of the goods in the sales outlets, to inspiring and informative multi-media communication. Its latest collaboration with the Indian project Appachi ECO-LOGIC Cotton, and the fabulous collection, are a great achievement by both sides – and probably a welcome sight for customers looking for sustainable and fashionable clothing.

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