Fashionista.com once stated that big brand clothing companies "will never be eco-friendly," as "something shipped across the world via a huge airplane" cannot possibly be good for the environment. While the statement is applicable to all industries that involve shipping across long distances, a new program in the apparel industry is aiming to help companies improve long-term sustainability on all points of their supply chains.
Water treatment is a big concern for
Last month, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) launched the Higg Index, a sustainability tool designed to assess the environmental and social impact of apparel and footwear products. Still in its early stages, the current version of the Higg Index focuses on measuring water use and quality, energy and greenhouse gas, waste, chemicals and toxicity. The coalition is working to further refine the tool by adding key social and labour metrics, including areas such as biodiversity and ecosystems. The next version of the index is slated for release in 2013. In explaining the goal of index, SAC executive director Jason Kibbey said, "What we hope for is that everybody eventually comes together to use a common assessment."
The coalition grew out of conversations in 2009 by an unlikely duo: big-box Wal-Mart and outdoor outfitter, Patagonia. Today, the coalition has over 60 member corporations, non-profits, manufacturers and suppliers, including large multi-national brands such as Adidas, Gap, H&M, Levi Strauss & Co., New Balance and PUMA. A press release by SAC notes that its members comprise more than a third of the global apparel and footwear market. Kibbey has claimed that high end fashion houses will soon be on-board as well. Given their consumer clout and access to the fashion community, high-end fashion brands could greatly increase the reach and awareness of the Higg Index and help solidify it as the go-to option for sustainable practices.
Having large corporations like Nike and Wal-Mart as founders (and funders - SAC is "self-supported") of SAC undoubtedly increases the initiative's growth potential. But given the historically rocky public opinion on the business practices of some of these companies, are they the best backers for this type of initiative? Nike's own Apparel Environmental Design Tool may be a main component of the Higg Index, but who can forget the company's reputation for poor labour conditions in the '90s? Even though Nike has recently made plans to raise its manufacturing and labour standards by 2020 (yes, the timeline is that far away), it has a long road ahead of them. As recently as last year, reports emerged of egregious human rights violations in some of its international factories.
For Wal-Mart, The High Cost of Low Price is only the tip of the iceberg. Its questionable labour practices, environmental violations and allegations of bribery not only have resounding social ramifications but have come at the cost of millions of dollars in legal fees and settlements. Perhaps the Higg Index is one avenue through which Wal-Mart (and Nike) are trying to turn around their soiled history. And while it's encouraging to see these companies working to improve their methods of doing business, one wonders whether their reasons for doing so have more to do with improving public perception than with creating actual change.
For now, the index has been beta-tested and is being used internally by SAC members. There is no consumer-facing index at the moment, as the coalition says its immediate focus is on improving and innovating apparel and footwear supply chains. "Consumers won't receive direct information until the quality of the information and Index have evolved and that data is completely reliable and credible," Kibbey says. "At that point we'll then consider the option of developing a consumer-facing label." Kibbey notes that, "there is broad support amongst our members for a consumer-facing label, but to do it right we have to be completely unassailable or else it's just greenwashing." "Greenwashing," of course, is common in today's marketplace given the lack of regulations surrounding "eco," "organic," etc. labelling. As Dhani Mau of fashionista.com pointed out, companies wishing to be recognised as sustainable can slap an eco-friendly label on just about anything. A database based on known standards of assessment for apparel and footwear players would be an important step for a better-informed public.
Whether or not certain companies may be involved in SAC (and using the Higg Index) for primarily public relations purposes, the index is an excellent initiative that will result in increasingly sustainable practices by apparel manufacturers. SAC's current roster has the size and backing to greatly influence the way the apparel industry will treat natural (and human) resources moving forward. The future may be cleaner than we may have expected.
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