Patagonia, Adidas, Walmart Team Up on Sustainable Apparel Coalition

What happens when you put executives from Walmart and Patagonia in a room? This isn't the start of a bad joke--it's how the Sustainable Apparel Coalition was born.

The seeds of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition were planted in 2009 when Patagonia and Walmart teamed up to help the latter company create a sustainability assessment tool for its supply chain (Patagonia was also working on an assessment tool for the Outdoor Industry Association). The partnership was successful enough that the pair decided to start working on a larger sustainability assessment tool for the apparel and footwear industries. In the fall of 2009, Walmart and Patagonia invited the CEOs of twelve companies to help found the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.

Fast forward to today. The Coalition is made up of more than 30 annual dues-paying companies and environmental organizations--including Levi Strauss & Co., Li & Fung, the EPA, Marks & Spencer, Mountain Equipment Co-op, New Balance, Nordstrom, Otto Group, and REI--all working together to develop an industrywide supply-chain index that measures water and energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, waste, social labor practices, and more.

The companies have committed to collect supply-chain information, work toward a standard level of best practices, and share information that may be helpful in improving supply chain sustainability.

"We came to the conclusion that one of the principles of this should be to leverage the work that's already been done by other companies. That looked like taking the OIA index and mashing it up with the Nike Considered Index and adding in pieces of Walmart's supplier sustainability assessment tool," explains Rick Ridgeway, the Coalition's Chairman and VP of Environmental Initiatives at Patagonia.

Version one of the Sustainable Apparel Index will be ready for pilot testing by member companies in April. "It's an indicator-based tool. The next version will evolve into a metrics-based tool," says Ridgeway. Version two will be ready to go by the end of 2011.

By the end of the year, the Coalition will expand to 40 to 50 companies--by invitation only. And by 2012, it will expand to all footwear and apparel companies that want to join.

That's just the beginning. Eventually, the Coalition hopes to launch a consumer-facing sustainability index. "We're all in alignment on the ultimate value of that," says Ridgeway. "We consciously decided to avoid working on it because we want to focus initial efforts on [developing] a robust tool."

Further down the line, Ridgeway imagines that the tool could be expanded to include other industries, too. For now, though, the goal is to "create something that will be available to any apparel and footwear companies that want to adopt it."

Follow Fast Company on Twitter. Ariel Schwartz can be reached by email.

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