Bursting the sustainability bubble

It was hard not to be impressed by the new thinking, concepts, and excitement exuded at Textile Exchange 2023, but sustainability can no longer live in a bubble, writes Gherzi Textile Organization partner, Robert P. Antoshak.

The sustainability world sometimes operates in a bubble but hopefully organisations like Textile Exchange can help the industry to burst it and implement meaningful environmental change and, in time, even labour reforms. Credit: Shutterstock.

According to Textile Exchange's organisers more than 1,300 people attended the 2023 event. It was dominated by young minds and fresh ideas. And when it comes to sustainability, our industry can use all the help it can get. So, it was gratifying to join so many motivated people. 

Even a short stint in the global apparel business leaves even the most cynical of observers impressed by the industry's innovation and efficiencies while being discouraged by the industry's failures as an environmentally sustainable business and employer of millions of workers globally. Sure, there are outliers, companies embracing change and positively contributing to the environment and meaningful labour rights. Still, there are so many more that do little beyond paying lip service to the cause of environmental stewardship and fair wages - after all, why do the hard things when a marketing message is just a soundbite away? 

Yet change happens, sometimes predictably, sometimes not. More often than not, change is thrust upon the ill-prepared, unsuspecting Luddites. To its credit, Textile Exchange, as witnessed at its 2023 gathering, endeavours to provide the tools and techniques necessary for the unwilling or indifferent to embrace new thinking. Sure, the days were long, with dozens of seminars covering topics from circularity to regenerative agriculture, but they were educational and enlightening. 

Balancing victory laps with what must come next

A quibble: the event occasionally suffered from self-congratulatory hero-worship for sustainability leaders, organisers, and well-heeled promoters. A victory lap too many, perhaps. But make no mistake, the event was worthwhile - and for this old warhorse, worth the time and expense to traverse the Atlantic. Indeed, these events become more prominent and thought-provoking every year. 

Even so, the sustainability world sometimes operates in a bubble of sorts; hopefully, organisations like the Textile Exchange can help the industry burst that bubble to implement meaningful environmental change and, in time, even labour reforms. For sure, they have created a terrific platform for an exchange of ideas, professional interactions, and innovation. Events such as these work hard to transcend industry marketing and product spin. 

Of course, commercial concerns were addressed by the organisers. An active pavilion of trade booths permitted companies and organisations to showcase their latest and greatest technology, transparency programme, or environmental initiative. In turn, the pavilion allowed conference attendees to network effectively. 

The market looms large

This leaves us to ponder the interaction between commercialism and environmental sustainability. In this sense, the Textile Exchange event was the intersection of what sells and what could be sold better (without wrecking the planet). A philosophical question of the day: which came first, environmental degradation or industrialisation? Answer: probably the former. Fire was discovered a long time ago; mechanisation used that fire to scale up production at the cost of the environment. 

With the current market as an ever-present backdrop, it's not out of line to ask if the industry, in its depressed economic state, can afford environmental sustainability. More pointedly, can the industry afford not to? Then again, this is the same industry that publicly says it wants to embrace sustainability - but only if it's cost-neutral. 

Cost-neutrality. Gosh. Sure, we'll help save the planet as long as it doesn't cost anything. Cynicism aside, there will always be the realities of the marketplace. In a low-margin business like apparel, companies will always scrimp, but they'll also cut corners. And they'll be compelled to innovate, but not necessarily in a positive way, but rather in an exploitative way.

The De Minimis conundrum and sustainability

Here's an example. The politicos in Washington have wrung many hands over the de minimis provisions of US trade regulations. Many travellers can attest that products purchased outside the United States brought with them into the country are not subject to import tariffs if the merchandise's declared value is less than $800. The same goes for shipments of many imported goods ordered online by US consumers and shipped directly to a home address. 

Millions of shipments are shipped to US consumers monthly under the duty exemption and inspection procedures typically imposed on imported merchandise by US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). As individual shipments are so small, the current regulation assumes that such entries are burdensome for CBP to inspect. But, as we've seen, companies have exploited this provision to move millions of dollars worth of clothing into the US market. 

Some may see this as a clever, innovative way of legally skirting US regulations. However, when viewed from the perspective of environmental sustainability and labour rights, such so-called inventive cleverness is little more than exploitative business practices. Forced labour in the Xinjiang province of China, where many of these direct-to-consumer shipments originate, remains a problem for our industry and society. The exploitation of de minimis only furthers the exploitation of ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang. 

But with millions of shipments entering the US every month, with discounts and clever marketing of its products on platforms like TikTok, doesn't this promote over-consumption? Of course, with the planet and workers holding the tab by promoting more significant sales of disposal apparel, growing waste, increased environmental degradation, and, according to the US Congress, forced labour and societal abuse. Exploit a loophole while exploiting a people? Is that what our industry has come to? Give me a break. 

Labour rights advocates, along with retailers and other companies harmed by de minimis exploitation, have called for buttoning up the de minimis loophole. Where's the environmentalist outrage? There's a sound argument to be made that exploitation of de minimis harms the environment. The last thing the planet needs is fast-fast fashion. The previous iteration of fast fashion did enough harm so it's not time to add steroids to the mix. 

Innovation and exploitation

Hence, we're left with positive and negative innovation - with the difference between positive and negative not clear cut. For some, it's open to interpretation. Exploitation of de minimis? It's simply an innovative business tactic. I hope the environmental sustainability movement sees it as more than a business practice and highlights how those abuses affect the planet and persecuted people. 

I look to organisations like Textile Exchange to make a difference. They are trying, and I applaud them for their efforts. Yet there's so much more to consider. Although our industry has a responsibility to its shareholders, it also has a responsibility to its workers and the planet. What's more, it has a duty to call out exploitation in all its forms. Such efforts will come with costs, but the time of cost-neutrality is long gone. 

168,000t: Rare earths produced by Chinese mines in 2021.

Gavin John Lockyer, CEO of Arafura Resources

Caption. Credit: 

However, Western mines are aiming to change this balance of production and power. The Mountain Pass Mine, owned by MP Materials , a Las Vegas-based mining company, is an open-pit mine of rare earths on the south flank of the Clark Mountain Range, 85km south-west of Las Vegas. In 2020, the mine supplied 15.8% of the world’s rare earth production and is the only rare earth mining and processing facility in the US.

In October 2020, Donald Trump, the former US president, signed an executive order declaring a national emergency in the mining industry, aimed at boosting the domestic production of rare earths. Trump ordered his cabinet to study the matter, with a view towards giving government grants for production equipment and imposing tariffs, quotas or other import restrictions against China.

Phillip Day. Credit: Scotgold Resources

The biggest rare earth mines are located in China, and this source of domestic production has helped drive Chinese dominance

Gavin John Lockyer, CEO of Arafura Resources

Caption. Credit: