“The Man in the White Suit” 2020- Why Large apparel companies only talk about Sustainability
The Man in the White Suit is a 1951 British film starring Sir Alec Guinness. The story is about an eccentric genius who works for a textile mill, and, while there, surreptitiously invents a polymer that, when woven, will produce a fabric that is indestructible, stain repellent, wrinkle and tear free. In other words, the perfect fabric.
After being fired from one company, Sidney Stratton schmoozes that company’s competitor into hiring him. While there, he perfects his polymer and the result in fabric is as advertised.
Never mind that it is slightly radioactive:-/
When the textile community gets wind of this development, they quickly realize that this fabric will destroy their business; the union workers have the same reaction. Together, they try to get Stratton to sign a deal giving them the rights to the process, which they will suppress.
After a wild chase, we are left to find out that the fabric is unstable, but the last scene implies that Stratton has figured out the problem.
I love this movie because I feel it is an allegory for our current situation with Sustainability. The large apparel companies could very easily achieve 90% sustainability through eliminating plastic and synthetics in garment, packaging and packing. For example, in our Lotus & Michael- The Art of Shirts line, we eliminated 95% of non-sustainable elements by losing the plastic bags, using mother of pearl buttons, shipping to us and to consumer only using paper packing. Only two small elements, the plastic clip at center back and the butterfly under the collar, remain as yet unsolved. But they will be.
Most important, our fabric and garments are designed and built to last. Solid shirts made from yarn dye instead of piece dye, fine and strong fabrics, artisanal construction will make for a shirt that will last a long time, still looking great. Your average piece dye solid shirt starts fading and deteriorating the first time you wash it. Result: Disposable Clothing. It is this that results in something like 500 million tons of clothing in landfills each year and it is this that we are determined to reduce dramatically. Other small companies like ours have taken a similar stand.
Do the large apparel companies really want to improve their packaging and their garments to reduce disposability and make their lifespan longer? My answer is no. Why?
Reason #1- It will cost more. Thus raising their retail prices or, heaven forbid, lowering their margins (this does not have to be the case over the longer term). Their value proposition does NOT depend on their quality and longevity; it depends on their price.
Reason # 2- They will sell a lot less units. Even if they can get a higher price, they will be constrained by the discount-happy world of retail. So, if the consumer does not have to replace their garments as often, their sales will go down.
Reason #3- Quality is not in their DNA. To make this change would require a. A change of attitude by top management b. hiring/firing/retraining of personnel to fulfill the new mission.
Reason #4- They would have to reorganize their supply chain. New suppliers, new mills, new accessories vendors, testing, etc. would be absolutely essential to succeeding in the world of quality. Again, cost.
So the result is that Management, while maybe not consciously undermining Sustainability, is bound by cost rather than product. In most cases the product fits into the cost profile rather than the cost fitting into the product profile. This is the main business philosophy change that would have to be made.
I believe that the above reasoning prevents Management from Implementing or even Proposing the changes that would be necessary to achieve a 90%+ sustainable product. And I see no scenario under which that would change.
Sustainability bye bye? Well, no, here’s the vision: Us small companies that have committed to this from the getgo will grow as the customer demands sustainability as a prerequisite to purchase. The big companies will fail to evolve and will go the way of the dinosaurs.
Evolution is a part of life in business, and his process has already started and will accelerate. Customers will drive it from here. What I know after decades in the fashion business is that radical changes can happen much faster than you expect them to.
Think small, buy small. Wear Sustainable. That’s our mantra.