Devising a sustainability strategy is no easy feat, as it is a complex system encompassing a broad view of the many environmental, societal and economic points. With more and more fashion companies establishing their own sustainable strategies, many seek partners who share their views, creating more opportunities for sustainable solutions. Paving the way for sustainable change within the label and hang tag sector, ITL Group, the leader in intelligent label solutions, continually seeks new ways to expand its sustainable products and solutions. Recognising the importance of constantly improving its supply chain processes and practices, Jimmy Christopher, head of Sustainability at ITL Group, was tasked with establishing the company's sustainability strategy when he joined the team a little over three years ago. Given a Blanche cart, not only has he helped oversee the implementation of new ways of working to minimize ITL Group's environmental impact, but he has also set new goals for the company. To learn more about ITL Group's vision on sustainability, we sat down with Jimmy, who outlined their way of working, green strategies and what he envisions for the future of ITL Group.
What were the first steps you took in creating ITL's Sustainability Strategy?
"The first step I took was to conduct an industry-style screening of what is important to our customers. We took a deeper look at what is important in supply chains and what's important for the worldwide agenda, looking at climate change as well, which is part of my background. I set ambitious environmental and social targets important to ITL and me. Supply chains remain complex systems with many material inputs and outputs, which led us to look closer at what we use to make our labels, what is used to make our hang tags and what happens to them at the end of life.
Then we created a vision-styled board and set up three main pillars: Environmental Stewardship, Employee Livelihood and Well-being, and Circularity. We defined key areas under each of the three we wanted to tackle. Under Environmental Stewardship, we have water, climate change and energy, and chemicals. We put these topics together because they are linked for us as a business. Under Employee Livelihood, we put gender equality, a fair and safe working environment and diversity. As a South African-founded company, this was particularly important to us. Under Circularity, we included our inputs, the materials we use, and the outputs, the waste we generate, so that we could develop as much circularity and closed-looped systems as possible.
We developed a strategy that is as holistic as possible because sustainability cannot be looked at in silos. Sustainability is a system, and all of those systems need to act with each other in a complimentary, complex way from a social to an environmental and economic point of view. Sometimes you cannot address all these points simultaneously, it's not possible, but understanding that they are linked is key."
Why is working transparently important to ITL?
Transparency and traceability are important to us because our sustainability strategy is science-led. We want to ensure our customers can make sustainability claims verified and supported by scientific evidence. Right from the start, we made sure our communication was science-based. Providing transparency around what we do is critical. For example, our first-ever sustainability report discloses our carbon footprint and our certifications concerning our social practices. We are transparent about our chemical usage and climate impact because it's the right thing to do.
We believe that a collaborative relationship with our customers is the best approach and leads to a bigger impact. Our certifications offer our customers peace of mind, ensuring they can trust us and our supply chains. We also vet all our suppliers, which can span a few tiers for a garment brand, so we have no stone left unturned in our approach to traceability."
How does ITL implement more sustainable practices into its products and processes?
"One of the first things I set up within ITL was a technical product forum to develop more sustainable products. Starting from an industry research point of view, I look at what new types of materials are on the market. Material science is a critical part of our product development next to studying the full product lifecycle. Understanding where garments go, what happens to them after purchase and end of life, such as going into landfills or recycling schemes, take back schemes, and then trying to enable the best outcome for brands.
We also look at things from a digital perspective, such as using QR codes to support circularity and traceability. Those areas have changed a lot, even in recent years. We have implemented quite a few changes within a three-year timespan. Every few months, we screen available materials and do as many trials as possible. Polyester currently accounts for around 50% of all garments worldwide. It does not stem from a renewable resource. So we are focusing our efforts for label production on using more renewable and recycled content, such as organic cotton and recycled fibers, as staying on the front end of cutting-edge materials is key for us. We try to do what we do better all the time and shift our materials to the best materials possible we can find.
Subsequently, having a team on the ground has also helped improve our processes. We own all of our factories, which gives us absolute control and provides real insights into what is happening on the ground. And we hear from our employees daily about what is happening on a social and environmental level. By owning our facilities, we can continually place resources where we need them and make changes from the ground up. We've ensured we hire people with the right skill set, which helps drive change and enhance our reporting. Sustainability is very data-oriented, and if we do not measure these things accurately, then we cannot improve them. If we don't measure our results, how can we know if we are getting better or not?
How does ITL work with its customers to offer them more sustainable products and solutions?
"Some of our clients see sustainability as a necessity, while others we help with our expertise. One of the key things we do when we meet with a client is to stress that our sustainability ideology is two-pronged. One is making better products for our customers material-wise. Our customers' goal is to make a garment, and designing for sustainability within that process with them is very important for us next to improving our processes and products. This way, if there are barriers for our customers to change to a more sustainable substrate of our products, like an organic one, or recycled one, it is all the easier. If we can make the same product for them, using less water, less energy, less carbon, fewer chemicals, less resources, and less carbon emissions, then that product is better all around. The same goes for our social side, using better social and labor practices according to our policies ensures we can offer our customers more sustainable options.
The other prong is making sustainability accessible to all. One way is through our design software known as intelligen™. We know that cost is one of the most important factors for our clients when making certain decisions, so we will often suggest redesigns for labels and hangtags that cut costs and are more sustainable. Then the customers can enjoy cost savings while switching from conventional materials to more sustainable alternatives, for example. One of our goals is to introduce recycled and renewable content in our core labeling and certified fibres in our paper labeling. It is something that we believe is the right thing to do."
How will ITL's sustainability strategy develop over the next few years?
The main focus for us now that we know where we stand and where we want to go is making sure we meet our goals. There is a big emphasis on achieving those targets, and we've made it easier for ourselves thanks to our top-down, bottom-up approach to implementing systems and initiatives to achieve our goals. There is huge support from the group leadership and an understanding that we need to invest in sustainability if we want to be the best at this. We have support from people who understand that what we do is good for business and the environment in the long run.
The main long-term goal is working towards our targets and being able to adapt to change. Things are going to change, there is going to be a lot more investment in various technologies and industries across the textile industry that is still maybe not accessible commercially. Still, we want to be on top of things and be ready to pivot quickly. One of our key strengths is our nimble nature, and ITL wants to remain aware of all changes and achieve our goals for 2025 and 2030 while setting more ambitious goals where possible."