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Jul 8, 2011
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How the Eco Index is Leading Apparel to a Green Future

Jul 8, 2011

July 7 - The textiles and apparel industry, once considered far behind the building and consumer electronics sectors in sustainability, has taken the lead on the environmental front.

Many firms and brands don't know where to start when it comes to sustainability. - photo: corbis

Though still in their infancy, the industry-wide efforts are a prime example of how open-source, cooperative action can yield promising results.

The Eco Index, an internal environmental assessment tool designed for apparel, footwear and equipment, grew from a seed of an idea that surfaced in August 2006 at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, a twice-annual trade show for outdoor industry businesses.

Five years in the making, the tool is accessible for anyone to test via ecoindexbeta.org, though there are a number of active subgroups still finalizing content. Methodologies for toxics & chemistry, equipment and materials efficiency in waste, and indicators for social responsibility and fair labor are being developed. Meanwhile, indicators for end of life, packaging and facilities are being revised.

The Eco Index provides a comprehensive framework for approaching sustainability throughout the supply chain.

Linda Greer, director of the Natural Resource Defense Council's Health and Environment Program and the woman behind the Clean By Design initiative, feels that creating the index is an amazing feat, but a bit misdirected.

"The development of the whole tool doesn't address the fact that more than 90 percent of the brands out there don't know where they get their materials from," Greer says. "That is a real problem. It's as if they are writing a giant SAT test and don't know the students to submit it to."

The lack of material transparency was one of the principal reasons behind the founding of Source4Style, a business-to-business online platform currently in public beta, which connects apparel brands directly to the source of their materials. [Editor's note: The author co-founded Source4Style with Benita Singh.] Sustainability information is built into a supplier questionnaire at the start, with the bulk of the questions modeled from the Eco Index's Material Indicators. The more information suppliers know about their own material, the better search functionality they will achieve once the site moves from public beta in a few months.

Beth Jensen, corporate responsibility manager of Outdoor Industry Association, the trade organization supporting the Eco Index, says the index provides a platform for brands and retailers to work with suppliers to gather information, leading to the ultimate goal of increased supply chain transparency.

"The companies in our industry recognize that they are not yet achieving the level of supply chain visibility they would ideally like to see, but that is why they developed the Eco Index," she says. "The index provides shared language and guidance around environmental impacts, a roadmap to discussing sustainability issues with and gathering data from suppliers.

"Down the road, it is likely that some type of third-party verification system will be put into place around the Eco Index, which will further force the issue of improved supply chain transparency. Those brands, retailers, and suppliers engaging now around the Eco Index will be well-positioned when that time comes."

It is clear that a process and framework for thinking about such issues were sorely lacking until the index emerged. Many firms and brands don't know where to start when it comes to sustainability. The Eco Index gets all brands, retailers, and suppliers on the same page, working in a common language and using a common way of measuring progress -- whenever the players are ready to speak and work towards those goals.

Kevin Myette, director of product integrity at REI, resolutely says, "Until we have that language, we have minimized our chance to make a difference."

Myette, a core member of the Outdoor Industry Association Eco Working Group and the chair of the systems subgroup of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, jokes that he doesn't know who he's working for anymore, but to him, it doesn't matter. He recognizes that being a part of the efforts helps move the industry forward.

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, an initiative announced earlier this year, began building upon the Eco Index efforts through an initial dialogue between Patagonia and Walmart. Jill Dumain, Patagonia's director of environmental strategy and chair of the Eco Working Group, says the coalition's goal is "to reduce the impact of the apparel industry by creating an index that will allow companies to rate their products for internal review. This will allow them to learn the necessary steps to improve their products and practices from both an environmental and social/labor point of view."

A group of over 35 member companies and organizations, the SAC is off to a good start -- largely because of the sweat equity done by the Eco Index and Nike's Environmental Apparel Design Tool. Lorrie Vogel, general manager of considered design at Nike, says the design tool is a modified lifecycle analysis for materials. Since about 60 percent of impact comes from the materials a designer chooses, Nike requires all designers to use the tool in their design process.

"The Nike tool is complimentary to the Eco Index," Myette says. "Nike has put the most effort on material impact, which is where the Eco Index has the most work to do. But the broader product framework isn't as robust as the Eco Index, so where they are strong, we're weak and vice versa."

Vogel says the more advanced materials tool speaks to the needs of designers. "We wanted a tool based on choices that designers have control over," she says. "Designers don't have control over the suppliers. We also need to be able to get feedback in two minutes. Speed is critical."

But what about the Eco Index? Is it unwieldy? Here's what Vogel says: "We need to make sure that this is a timely process so people don't get stuck or frustrated. The only way that you can make the tool work quickly is if you already have the information to plug in. But once we know the average rating for environmentally preferable materials, we can do that."

Easy to say, of course, if you have the answers: But what about facility indicators, which highlight a manufacturer's environmental practices -- information that brands don't often know or can't often easily procure from their suppliers? This is largely where NRDC's Clean by Design program fits into the equation.

After the NRDC discovered that the textiles industry was one of the two most polluting industries and one of the top 10 energy users in China, the organization decided to take action. After years of observation and research in Chinese factories, NRDC developed 10 practical strategies that a facility can take to reduce pollution and save money. These can produce bottom-line savings for manufacturers, as well as better Eco Index scores for brands that are inquiring about suppliers' environmental performance and practices.

It remains to be seen whether the apparel industry's behind-the-scenes work for sustainability will be, in some small way, communicated to consumers on back-of-tags, on retail shelves and in e-commerce. The Federal Trade Commission recently revisited the language of its Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, better known as "Green Guides." Terms like "compostable," "renewable," and a host of other popular green phrases have come under increased scrutiny with the Green Guide urging brands to refrain from using "unsubstantiated claims."

"I applaud the efforts of the FTC," asserts Myette. "The work is 100 percent complimentary to the Eco Index and the SAC because it's about getting to the truth."

However, Myette and others in the industry are wary of prematurely rolling out the story of their sustainability work and the tools being created to a public audience. "I think everyone's goal is to eventually turn the tools we are creating into better ways to communicate to the consumer," says Myette.

"But this early work isn't about creating tools that are consumer-facing," he adds. "That is a dynamic that will undermine the entire effort. It is about deciphering and learning. It's about getting to the truth. Having a half-finished index to be judged by a consumer vs. having an index for which you're learning from to ask how you can be better is a much different dynamic."

Vogel echoes Myette's comments: "Sustainability is about systems change. And no one company can do this alone. We are creating this as one industry. And the faster we can collaborate, the faster we can create change."

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