Big brands getting green

03 March 2011

NEW YORK: Major brand owners like Nike, Wal-Mart and Target are teaming up in a wide-ranging effort to jointly enhance green standards.

The new Sustainable Apparel Coalition will establish a common index setting industry-wide benchmarks concerning the ecological credentials of clothing and footwear.

Further objectives incorporate "spotlighting" promising technological innovations, improving supply chain systems, and fostering collaboration to deliver "consistent expectations" for manufacturers and retailers.

Members include Adidas, Esprit, H&M, JC Penney, Levi Strauss, Marks & Spencer, New Balance, Nike, Patagonia, Target, Timberland and Wal-Mart.

The US Environmental Protection Agency, Duke University and Environmental Defense Fund are just some of the representatives from the governmental, academic and not-for-profit sectors respectively.

Rick Ridgeway, who will chair the Coalition and is Patagonia's vice president, environmental programmes, argued these organisations understood the necessity of abandoning old practices.

"They recognise the opportunity to get in front of the growing need to measure and manage the environmental and social impacts of their products," he said.

"More importantly, they recognise the threat to the planet and its inhabitants by continuing the model of 'business as usual.'"

One successful precedent is Nike's Environmental Apparel Design Tool, which assesses the ecological footprint of potential launches, and has been made accessible to other companies.

Kate Meyers, from Nike's communications division, suggested the broad range of rankings currently generated by individual firms might serve to confuse the situation, rather than providing greater clarity.

"How do we get some standardisation and commonality and agreement so we can all be heading in the same direction?" she asked.

"There's a need for a number of us to come together."

The imperative supporting these goals is so strong that it overcomes traditional rivalries and the habit of closely guarding intellectual property.

"There's definitely a place for competition, but this is a space where we see a need for collaboration," said Meyers.

Last year, trade group the Outdoor Industry Association - also in the Coalition - began testing an online platform, the Eco-Index, looking at a product's entire lifecycle.

"People are at such different points on the sustainability journey, and working together can accelerate our ability to make change," Alex Tomey, a vice president for product development and design at Wal-Mart, said.

Going forward, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition hopes to build a database covering the performance of each company, alongside analysing the materials used and monitoring manufacturing techniques.

It has partnered with the Sustainability Consortium, which boasts PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, SABMiller and Unilever among its members.

This body is already creating measurement tools, working in categories from household goods to information technology.

In time, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition may add labels offering an official rating of various products, thus empowering customers to a much higher degree than at present.

"This is really filling a void," said Jeffrey Swartz, chief executive of Timberland. "The government has standards for miles per gallon on a car, but we have no real standards for clothing."

"This will ultimately put the power in the hands of the consumers, because the apparel industry is saying out loud, 'We're going to find a way to disclose to you what's behind this purchase decision - beyond color, size and fit.'"

Data sourced from Sustainable Business Oregon, New York Times, PR Newswire; additional content by Warc staff