How to provide sustainable mannequins! 

Article by Bob Volpe;

Having recently read an article entitled; Sustainability In Retail: Good For Business, Great For Humanity, written by Roy Erez, and this got us thinking about the supply chain for mannequins in retail.

The article starts out with the following paragraph

Consumers, especially younger ones, are seeking brands that publicly champion values that align with their own. They’re demanding socially conscious mission statements, checking the political views of executives, and pressing companies to make both their products and businesses sustainable. Their concerns are not limited to materials and packaging. They’re looking to buy from companies that focus on sustainability across the entire supply chain and all business operations.

With this in mind we started to analyze, the many conversations we have had with leading retail buyers and heads of VM, in some of the large global brands we work with.

We get asked questions about sustainability a lot, but the reality is that not everyone understand what is involved in developing products that are recyclable and sustainable. When this is allied to the many suppliers who are using smoke and mirrors to bamboozle potential customers, with talk of bio resins, biodegradable materials and processes to try and substantiate their position as ethically sound, it becomes very confusing indeed.

Many retailers now have sustainable champions and departments, whose role it is to look beyond the materials, into the manufacturing, processing and disposal of products. This means that they are getting more knowledgeable about sustainability but what does sustainability actually mean?

In 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This report says that sustainability should consider a balance between ecological, social and economic aspects (plant, people and profits)

So how should a retailer who is serious about working with ecologically centered suppliers look at this in the mannequin world?

Historically mannequins were made from Fibreglass, they used fossil derived resins from petroleum, with glass matting. This process has been improved over the years, through the use of bio resins, but just because it has the word bio in front of it, it doesn’t mean if it is used, it makes the mannequin sustainable.

We need to look further into the origin of this resin and how it is used with a matting (either glass or plant fibre) to provide a structurally sound mannequin. What processes are involved in taking the plant fibre, whether hessian, bamboo etc and spinning it into a usable matting and how bio is the resin, what proportion of the mannequin does it actually affect?

As manufacturing methods moved on, mannequins started to be produced in Plastics, these could be made in Polyethylene, Polypropylene, Polyurethane, Polystyrene, ABS or Polycarbonate. As most plastics use vital fossil based oils in their manufacture, we need to consider the statement that they are sustainable very carefully.

So how can IDW claim to provide sustainable mannequins?

IDW are working with their suppliers, to investigate the possibility to replace traditional hydrocarbon based feedstocks for its Polystyrene material with renewable feedstocks, based on a mass balance approach. This would allow us to increase the use of certified renewable raw materials into classic value chains, reducing greenhouse gas emissions with each kilo of product used, without altering the product material and specifications.

The biggest question any retailer should ask their supplier is how much of your product is derived from bio based materials and where does this come from? This will then start to determine the sustainability of the product.

Once sustainability has been established, it is important to look at the recyclable or decomposition properties of the plastic. In the case of Polystyrene, ABS and Polycarbonate these have been easily recycled for many years, with the material either being re-used or re purposed. In IDW’s case we use recycled Polystyrene by incorporating this within our mannequins. It can also be used  in the thermoforming, injection molding, construction industries and many items that can then be ground down and re molded and reused several times.

Other plastics whilst being classed as recyclable can’t always offer the same levels or ease of re-use as Polystyrene, ABS or Polycarbonate.

Finally as well as looking at the origin of the material and the reuse of the material, we should also look at the process of manufacture. How is the mannequin made? What are the molds that are used to forge the shape made from?

“And finally there is a whole debate about the use of plastics in general. We think that plastics are not necessarily a problem. On the contrary, they can also present opportunities to solve environmental concerns, but the question is how do we chose to deal with plastics.

Although mannequins are not single-use plastic products and, given the commitments by most of the major fashion brands towards sustainability, should not end up in the ocean or landfills (especially those that can be recycled), IDW also recognizes its responsibility to contribute to global efforts to reduce plastic waste. Therefore, we have recently partnered with Plastic Bank which transforms sensitive coastal ecosystems while uplifting communities in need. The plastics collected by people in coastal communities can be exchanged at Plastic Bank ‘s chain of stores for income, as well as household staples and access to healthcare and education.”

Once all of these elements have been reviewed, then we can start to form a view on the claims from a company that it is offering a sustainable, recyclable and ecologically neutral product. You don’t need to be a chemical engineer to understand this, but by asking clear and concise questions and researching all elements of the lifecycle of the product, from source, production and reuse, you can clearly understand which products fit the sustainable ethos of a brand and which products meet the criteria of the brands highly demanding consumers and which suppliers are really working with retailers in partnership to deliver this.