Moving from Sustainability to Thrivability

by Jeremy on March 24, 2011

Last week I had the honor of giving the keynote address at Techtextil NA.  In addition to having a captive audience listening to me (something I do not shy away from), I got to escape the tail end of the Maine winter for a week in Vegas.  I definitely took advantage of this, hitting up the Grand Canyon, Sedona, and a few other natural wonders of the Southwest.

For the keynote, I was tasked with talking about innovations around “green” and “sustainability” in the textile industry.  I thought I would share an excerpt from the speech.  While I like to think it is more exciting when I deliver it, I hope you all enjoy.

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As I stand up here, I can’t help but think about why I am here today.  Looking at the slide on the screen, the answer is rather obvious.  I am here to give a talk on “Moving from Sustainability to Thrivability.”

But the real reason I am here today is because about 4 years ago I bought this red performance top.  You might be asking, “What does a red shirt have to do with giving the keynote at a textile conference?”  Well, that is a good question and here is the answer.

The first time I wore this red shirt, I went out for an 8-mile run on a very hot and humid day.  Just a few minutes into my run, I was sweating quite heavily and noticed that red dye was starting to trickle down my shorts.  By the end of my run, I was completely covered in red dye from the neck down.  Bear in mind, this was after washing the top twice.

As you might imagine, I found the experience a bit disturbing.  I decided to do some research to find out what sort of chemicals my body was absorbing when I was trying to make myself healthier by running.  The more I read, the more I uncovered facts such as these about the textile and apparel industry.

Textile waste occupies nearly 5% of all landfill space in the world.  Where does all this trash come from?  Well, it doesn’t help that the average American throws away about 68 pounds of clothing per year.  85% of this goes into a landfill.  That is about 18 billion pounds of apparel we are sending to landfills each year.  We, here in this room, may think this problem is out of our control.  It’s the consumers who are throwing all of this away.  True.  But it is also true that our industry has not shied away from fast fashion and the planned obsolescence of products.  This throw-away mindset does not only create environmental problems, it creates economic ones.

An estimated 30 billion dollars worth of materials is lost each year in the US by not recycling.  Plastic bottles, a great resource for our industry, are recycled at a rate of less than 30%.  That’s right, more than 70% of plastic bottles go to landfills in the US.  That’s a lot of money we are throwing away.  And don’t forget about the taxes we all pay to handle the processing and burying of our waste.

In 2009, 3 trillion gallons of fresh water was used to produce 132 billion pounds of fabric.  Those can be hard numbers to get your head around, so look at it like this:  23 gallons of water was used to make 1 pound of fabric.  Unfortunately, as a global industry, we do not return the water back to the earth in very good shape.

20% of all industrial fresh water pollution comes from textile treatment and dyeing.  You can actually see dye pollution from satellites in space.  This picture shows blue dye washing down river from textile mills in Xintang (SHIN-tahng), China.  Our industry treats water like it is an infinite and plentiful resource.  Unfortunately that is not the case: about 1 billion people lack access to clean water.

At least we can say that we are a well-traveled industry.  The average t-shirt travels the equivalent of 1 time around the globe during its production.  That travel rivals the amount of miles us car-addicted Americans drive on a yearly basis.

I know I am not painting a very pretty picture.  And believe it or not, at heart I am an optimist.  That is why within a couple days of the red shirt incident, I quit my job and became what some call a social entrepreneur.  There are a lot of definitions out there for social entrepreneurs, but I like to think about it like this.  A social entrepreneur is someone who sees environmental and social problems as business opportunities.  We find things that are not working for society or the environment and develop new business systems and models to solve the problems.   And while we are trying to drive positive environmental and social change like a non-profit, one of our core goals is to make money.  Essentially, social entrepreneurs leverage business, the most powerful machine out there, to create positive change.

However, you do NOT need to start a company to be someone who leverages the power of business to drive positive social change.  That just happens to be the road I took.  You can also drive positive change within an existing business.  You can be a social INTRA-prenuer.  A social INTRApreneur leverages the power of an existing business to create new business models, processes, or products to tackle environmental and social challenges.

So, if I have one audacious goal for this talk, it is that a few of you might be inspired to blaze ahead as a social intra-prenuer or even an entrepreneur.

Based on all I have said so far, you might imagine a guy like me gets pretty excited to hear people in our industry talk about “going green” or “being more sustainable.”  Well, you’d be wrong.  I actually hate those terms.  I find them counter productive.  First of all, green is a color.  It is a very nice color, but at the end of the day, it is just a color.  And when it is used in the context of business, it typically conjures up images of Birkenstock-wearing, tree-hugging hippies fighting against any sort of economic growth.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love Birkenstocks, hugging trees, and hippies.  But I also believe economic growth is positive for the world if done intelligently.

Now take the word sustainable.  If I were to ask my wife what she thought about our relationship, and she said it was sustainable, I would be very concerned.  I would rather her describe it by using words such as passionate or thriving.

So when I hear people throw around the words green and sustainable in the business context, I get concerned.  I think they are counter-productive.  They suggest that we have to compromise economic growth.  In my opinion, economic growth and creating positive environmental and social change go hand in hand.  It just requires you to look at things differently, sometimes very differently.

As Albert Einstein said and I’m sure we’ve all heard before, “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it.  You must learn to see the world anew.”

I say we change the way we think and talk about environmental and social issues in our industry.  Instead of talking about creating a green or sustainable textile industry, let’s talk about creating a thrivable one.  Let’s move from sustainability to thrivability.  So, what am I talking about when I say thrivability?

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If you want to hear the rest, well, I guess you might just have to go through the agony of seeing me talk in person. : )

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