Last week we saw GoodGuide come out with sustainability grades and give Levi Strauss an A for do-gooder denim moves.
Today sees the formal launch of an industry-based Sustainable Apparel Coalition, an almost unimaginable collection of commercial companies (including Levi Strauss) and brands, governmental agencies, and nonprofit organizations. The group is out to change the world by developing a set of common metrics and standards.
They may not have the flashiest logo, but they have bigger aims: namely, to develop "a comprehensive database of the environmental impact of every manufacturer, component and process in apparel production, with the aim of using that information to eventually give every garment a sustainability score," according to the New York Times.
The Coalition is comprised of 30 diverse members including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund, the educational institution Duke University, the labor rights group Verite, and manufacturers/retailers that include Hanes, H&M, jcpenney, Levi Strauss, New Balance, Nordstrom, Patagonia, REI, Timberland, and (critically) Walmart.
The coalition took root in 2009 when, according to Fast Company, Patagonia and Walmart got together to work up a "sustainability assessment tool for Walmart's supply chain." That led to the two companies inviting others to start the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.
Now the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is working towards the day when a label will carry a sustainability score, so consumers could understand where every component of a piece of clothing — fabric, dyes, buttons, zippers, etc. — comes from, along with the impact of that item's production on both people and the world.
One of the reasons the Coalition is focusing on clothing is because Americans buy some $340 billion worth of clothes and shoes annually — around 25% of the global market — and just about all of it is made somewhere other than the U.S. Typically, the component pieces of the item could be made and the item could be assembled in many different countries, so an important aspect of the Coalition's work is simply to help companies get a handle on their supply chains.
Huantian Cao, associate professor of fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware, tells the Times, "The apparel supply chain is long and quite complicated and many of our current apparel companies — brand companies — don't really own all the production facilities and factories. So even for a company that has a label or brand on the product, it might not be easy to study the whole life cycle of that product, because so much of that supply chain is out of their control."
That lack of control is also a concern to environmental groups, who worry, for example, that a brand name manufacturer could be using dyes that pollute the water, or other products that are harmful to the environment. Similarly, human rights groups are concerned that products may be manufactured in countries where workers are under-compensated or not treated well.
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition hopes that its tool — a database of scores assigned to every player in a garment's life cycle -- will ultimately give clothing designers the ability to source materials and suppliers who are within a clothing manufacturer's "sustainability goals." The tool will examine such things as energy efficiency, greenhouse gases, chemical use, waste production, and labor practices of everything from growers to manufacturers to suppliers, and even packagers, shippers, and retailers.
There have already been some efforts by individual companies, such as Nike and Timberland, to create their own environmental measurement tools, as well as the Outdoor Industry Association's "Eco Index." But none of the efforts to date have been nearly as far-reaching as those suggested by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. Rick Ridgeway, chairman of the Coalition, tells Fast Company that elements of previous tools will be combined to create a "Sustainable Apparel Index" for pilot testing by member companies as early as April. A second, more robust version should be ready by the end of 2011.
Jeffrey Swartz, CEO of Timberland, a leader in sustainability, is positive about the work of the Coalition.
"This is really filling a void," he tells the Times. "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.'"