At first glance they may appear to be regular T-shirts; a wide neckline, loose fit, rounded seam and available in eight different colours. There is, however, something special about these shirts; this is the first cradle-to-cradle collection created by C&A. “This is the most sustainable T-shirt in the world,” the company announced during a press conference in Antwerp, where the line was revealed.
According to C&A, the T-shirt line is the world’s first cradle-to-cradle (C2C) collection. The C2C certificate is an independent sustainability rating. It is used to evaluate the safety of materials and products for people and the environment, the design for future circular use, and sustainable production. For this, this C&A collection has received its first ‘Gold’ rating. The other rating levels are Basic, Bronze, Silver and Platinum.
”We are extremely proud to launch our first cradle-to-cradle certified Gold-level T-shirts. These shirts have been designed with their next life in mind,” You Nguyen, Director of Brands Womenswear Collections at C&A, says. “We believe in fashion with a positive impact and are delighted to be able to provide our customers with stylish products and sustainable fashion at a great price.”
The T-shirts are made of 100 per cent organic cotton, with ‘safe materials and chemicals’ and are manufactured in a ‘socially and environmentally responsible manner’. This means they were designed to be used again or to be recycled (circular). Furthermore, sustainable energy and reused water were utilised in the production process. The T-shirts will be available in C&A stores in 19 European countries from June 2017, while stores in Brazil and Mexico will include the shirts in their offering from September.
C&A: “Doing something ‘less badly’ isn’t good enough”
”These shirts are made of organic cotton, and are different from other shirts. The stitches aren’t made of nylon or polyester, but are also made of organic cotton. Further to this, new non-toxic chemicals were used,” Don Brenninkmeijer, C&A’s Chief Brand, Customer & Sustainability Officer, explained during the press conference. “If you were to throw this shirt on a compost heap, it would compost in 11 weeks.”
The idea for this collection was conceived two years ago during a family meeting. Brenninkmeijer: “Every year we hold a family conference for our stock holders and adult family members. We invite external speakers to these meetings. One of these speakers was William McDonough [a renowned cradle-to-cradle expert], who talked to us about his world views, the circular economy and sustainability.” Together with McDonough, C&A created the cradle-to-cradle collection.
C&A’s awareness regarding the importance of sustainability and corporate responsibility has been growing, Brenninkmeijer explains. “Rana Plaza was definitely a turning point. It was an eye opener for my cousin, who was CEO at the time. In that moment, it became clear that something had to be done, that the situation had to change. That was when sustainability become of the company’s priorities.” Incidentally, the implementation of the circular production process and cradle-to-cradle rating came into play at a later stage. “We must do more to achieve sustainability, but this is one of the components to realising that goal.”
Jeffrey Hogue, C&A’s Global Sustainability Officer, says: “As an industry, we have the opportunity to transform the ‘take, make, waste’ model into a circular model. In practice, this means that we should be thinking of the next step when designing, developing and producing products; maximizing the maximum value of clothing during use, then restoring and regenerating products and materials at the end of their lifecycle in order to give them a different purpose.” During the press conference, both Brenninkmeijer and McDonough agreed that ‘it isn’t about doing things ‘less badly’, but about doing them right’.
C&A aims to become the world’s most sustainable retailer by 2020
C&A already announced its goal to become the world’s most sustainable retailer by 2020. “But that must never be the end goal, the sustainability process never stops,” Brenninkmeijer warns. “We are already looking at how we can make the processes 100 per cent circular. By 2020, we at least want 100 per cent of cotton products to be made of sustainable cotton; organic or BCI cotton.” C&A is setting annual goals to be able to achieve its objectives in three years’ time. “The circularity has given the objectives an extra twist, which made us question whether we were ‘stretching’ ourselves far enough.”
”We don’t have any objectives for cradle-to-cradle until 2020; we are focusing on how we can change the industry step by step, and by category. Can we find a solution for denim, and for polyester? That doesn’t exist yet on this scale.” He continues: “The biggest challenge will be to find new solutions and to attract new partners. We need to change our customers’ perception. It’s a step-at-a-time process, and now we’re talking about 400,000 T-shirts. We haven’t gotten to denim and coats, though. That’s not a reality yet.”
In recent years, C&A has implemented changes in the supply chain in order to be able to work more sustainably. “We have reduced the number of manufacturers that we work with. If you want to set up that type of circular production, you have to work with parties who are able to achieve that. They have to be willing to make the necessary changes with you, such as using sustainable energy and better labour conditions. We acknowledge that the industry is not yet where it should be, but we have chosen a number of manufacturers with whom we wish to enter a dialogue,” Brenninkmeijer explains.
C&A: “Customers feel limited to recycling their clothing”
Why should customers care about sustainability? After all, most C&A customers are attracted by the affordable prices. Brenninkmeijer: “We have done a great deal of research and have spoken extensively with customers. Style is most important to the customer, followed by the price, the value of the product and the price-quality ratio. Those are what drive them. Our research has shown that sustainability ranks at number 26 for the customer.” Should C&A then do more to raise awareness? “When you tell them about what happened at Rana Plaza, that triggers a great deal of emotion. But customers are still questioning the impact they can have on the world. They feel limited to recycling their clothing.” He continues: “We have noticed an increase in demand for and of the importance of sustainable apparel. We will subsequently be communicating the transparency and open discussions back to the customer. We want customers to have a better understanding of how the rating of a cradle-to-cradle collection works.”
Another issue is that a shirt from the cradle-to-cradle collection costs between 7 and 9 euros. Is that feasible? “The consumer is central to what we do. The price is linked to what the consumer can afford,” Brenninkmeijer says. Even if the cradle-to-cradle T-shirt collection fails to become a success, C&A will continue to apply cradle-to-cradle within other categories in their ranges. “The storytelling must be tailored to the customers,” the C&A executive explains. ”The first launch of organic cotton wasn’t an immediate hit with the customers either. Now 33 per cent of the collection is made of organic cotton.” In the future, sustainability must be one of the first four motives for a customer to buy a product from C&A.
C&A wants to be a leader in sustainability
If it is up to Brenninkmeijer, C&A will hold a leading position in the steps to a more sustainable apparel industry. “It is our responsibility and the challenges are considerable. We want to be a leader in the debate about sustainability and want to encourage others to join us in this journey.”
Hogue: “The cradle-to-cradle collection is an important milestone for us – and for the industry – and it demonstrates that the creation of circular fashion is already possible. We have already proven as much – and we want others to follow. That is why we are providing every manufacturer who wishes to use it with the design blueprint. This breakthrough is too important to keep to ourselves. The industry will need greater collaborative efforts related to circular economy, such as the C2C rating, as well as more brands who want to develop products for new use.”
In order to strengthen the collaborations, C&A Foundation recently established Fashion for Good. This initiative connects brands and supports the scaling of technologies, processes and business models that have the potential to transform the industry. C&A’s objective is to adopt these innovations in the company’s supply chain. The cradle-to-cradle collection was achieved in collaboration with Fashion for Good.
”Our goal is to further expand the circular collections in our stores and online, and we encourage others to join us in this journey,” Hogue concluded during the press conference. “The greatest compliment will be that, in the future, other fashion companies will do this on an even greater scale.”
Images: Couresty of C&A, FashionUnited