What is Real Sustainability in Business?

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Image by: Brian Howell

Can “sustainability” evolve to become more 
than just a fuzzy marketing term and deliver bottom-line results? 
Several local businesses think the answer is yes – maybe
.

Back in 2005, Denise Taschereau came by Mark Trotzuk’s showroom on East Hastings to have a look at some apparel. She was director of sustainability for Mountain Equipment Co-op; he was a former banker who had morphed a clothing line into a corporate garment manufacturing company. The way he remembers their meeting, she looked around at his shirts and jackets and took a toxic inventory. 


“Wait a minute,” she said. “This has heavy metals in it, this has petroleum products, this has formaldehyde.”

“Really?” he asked, picturing a shirt acting like a nicorette patch, slowly leaching chemicals into his skin. “I guess I have to do something about it.” 


“You don’t have to do anything,” she replied. “Do you want to?”


Apparently he did. Flash forward to 2011, and his clothing has an altogether different anatomy. One January morning, in his office at TNT Garment Manufacturing Ltd. (head office and the company’s Boardroom Eco Apparel showroom are now at 1201 Franklin St.), Trotzuk shows me a glacier-toned men’s base-layer crewneck. The lightweight fabric is made of 50 per cent recycled polyester and also contains ground-up coconut shells. But more to the point, he pulls a thick binder off the shelf to prove to me what is not in the shirt. Never mind the heavy metals or petroleum. There are no halogenated or aromatic compounds here either. No chlorinated aromatics, no alkyl phenyl ethoxylates, and no polyurethane that is capable of releasing any of the carcinogenic amines listed in Appendix B. Every fabric, toggle, thread, trim, zipper, button, tag and cross-hatch in this shirt and the majority of his other garments is perfectly safe, according to the rigorous standards of the Switzerland-based independent auditor Bluesign Technologies. A Bluesign-approved factory has met environmental standards that address the entire industrial process, from raw materials and energy going in, to water and emissions going out. Every component is manufactured in an approved facility or sent away for chemical testing, and Trotzuk keeps the reports in this binder. 


Taschereau now runs a business called Fairware Promotional Products Ltd., which sources sustainable giftware for corporate, educational and non-profit clients. She remembers their initial meeting as less finger-pointing and more general discussion of the chemicals involved in fabric production. When Trotzuk told her a few months later that he was looking into Bluesign, she laughed. At the time she was sitting in on discussions with representatives from companies such as Nike and Timberland, who said the Bluesign standards were just too difficult. “I think Mark is doing the most robust, deepest work on sustainable textiles of anyone in the industry,” she says. “He’s miles ahead.” 


What is sustainability?

The definition of sustainability is most often traced back to the 1987 Brundtland Commission report, a UN study that addressed economic, environmental and social concerns around the world. It defines sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The term tends to be used interchangeably with “corporate social responsibility,” which dates back to at least 1967 in a book by Clarence Walton, but that term focuses more on the environment.


Mark Trotzuk does not often use the S-word, which he finds a bit fuzzy. He prefers numbers and specifics. He knows, for example, that his business generated 101 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2009, nine tonnes less than the previous year. Eighty per cent of his clothing is sewn here at his factory. A flowchart illustrating his closed-loop apparel recycling program outlines efforts to reduce waste and pollution through every stage of manufacturing, sales and end use. 


Claiming to be sustainable, however, is misleading, Trotzuk says, because it’s not an absolute state. “We don’t sell environmentally friendly clothing,” he insists. “There’s no such thing. There’s always impact.” 


Trotzuk, who at 45 looks fit and perpetually well-rested, does not do yoga. He played hockey while doing his agriculture and economics degree at UBC and still plays in a Thunderbirds alumni league. Under his jersey he wears a ratty old cotton T-shirt, which he chooses over his highly technical athletic gear – for sentimental reasons but also because the most sustainable use of clothing is to wear it to shreds. His company doesn’t directly compete with Lululemon, as he sells through agents who deal with corporate clients, but he does give the apparel titan a bit of a hip check when he brings up the recent recall of Lululemon’s reusable shopping bags. The ink used to print such self-affirming faux-philosophy as Dance, Sing, Floss and Travel, was found to contain lead. “That,” Trotzuk points out, “would never happen with Bluesign.” 



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