Apparel Industry Pitches Eco Index

Posted by Barry Silverstein on July 22, 2010 02:00 PM

The Gulf oil spill is a daily reminder of our over-dependence on oil. More than that, it is a stark statement about the impact man can have on our natural environment.

Now some 100 retailers and apparel brands are working together to minimize their impact on the environment, using a software tool that will help them measure environmental factors, from creating a product right through its disposal.

The group calls the output of the tool the "Eco Index," and the hope is that it will become as recognizable on clothing as Energy Star is on appliances. While individual members of the consortium, such as Levi's, have been putting their own eco-stamp on packaging, the idea is to create a recognizable "green" seal of approval.

The rationale behind the Eco Index is that consumers, who are becoming more sensitive to sustainability, will be motivated to choose products that have an "eco-value" displayed on their packaging.

While the Eco Index has been in development for three years, it will be officially introduced at next month's Outdoor Retailer trade show, according to The Wall Street Journal. The date for launching the Eco Index into the consumer marketplace hasn't yet been determined, however.

The Eco Index is likely to be taken seriously because of the broad coalition behind it, which includes such major players as Adidas, Brooks Sports, Columbia Sportswear, Levi Strauss, Nike, Patagonia, REI, Target, and Timberland. Started by outoor retailers, luxury brands are notably absent from the group.

Increasingly, apparel and shoe manufacturers have assessed their operations from a global environmental perspective. These companies make heavy use of chemicals, some of which are toxic, synthetics, and natural resources to produce their products. Just as significant is the impact of these products on land fills. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 12.4 million tons of textiles were disposed of in the United States in 2008.

The Eco Index allows these manufacturers to measure their impact on the environment, as well as assess their labor practices. The Index scores a product based on answers to questions and ranks it, assigning a score that is some percentage of "perfect." In that sense, it's similar to how Energy Star ranks the energy efficiency of appliances, such as refrigerators and air conditioners.

Manufacturers in other industries have already made concerted efforts to demonstrate a commitment to sustainability. As one example, Ikea issues a "Green Report Card" showing how the company reduces its carbon footprint.

Apparel companies that already aggressively pursue sustainability initiatives are understandably anxious to get the Eco Index into the mainstream. Timberland chief executive Jeff Schwartz, for example, tells The Wall Street Journal that "he's frustrated that the Eco Index coalition isn't moving faster, so Timberland is already putting its own version of green ratings on its packaged and websites."

Going public with the Eco Index may not be easy. It requires all of the participating retailers and manufacturers to agree on uniformity standards before it can be implemented. Since some of the information collected to come up with a score is speculative, that could be a challenge. But if the coalition can get over these hurdles, consumers may soon have the ability to make everything they wear a lot more green.

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