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Creating A Sustainability Index For The Apparel Industry, With Help From Nike, Walmart, And Target

Want to know if your clothes destroyed the environment while they were being made? A new index will help the apparel industry figure out all the potentially damaging things involved in the product creation process.

Creating A Sustainability Index For The Apparel Industry, With Help From Nike, Walmart, And Target
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The apparel industry has had its share of bad supply chain PR–remember the damage done to Nike’s reputation in the 1990s after the sweatshop labor debacle? “That was a cautionary tale of what not to do in terms of creating a common response. The industry came together with a lot of different approaches to social and labor issues instead of one unified idea,” explains Jason Kibbey, Executive Director of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. Kibbey’s organization, which is made up of over 60 companies and environmental organizations (Nike, Walmart, Target, Patagonia, and JC Penney among them), wants to avoid the mistakes of the past by creating a standard of best practices in the sustainability arena.

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That standard, known as the Higg Index, was unveiled this week. Designed to measure sustainability across the entire supply chain, the index evaluates three different modules: the brand module, the product module, and the facilities module. The brand module looks at how a company’s practices and policies could impact product sustainability (i.e. whether a company designs for durability, if they use restricted chemical substances, whether they have practices in place to reduce packaging). The product module examines the sustainability of different materials and product coatings, among other things. And the facilities module looks at energy, water, and waste performance as well as facilities management.

Last October, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition launched a pilot of the index with over 150 products–an exercise that yielded so much feedback from participants (over 1,000 comments) that the coalition spent over 1,400 man-hours improving it. Companies are scored out of 100 points, but even today’s best-performing companies will only receive middling scores. That’s by design, according to Kibbey. “This is designed to be aspirational and provide a framework for improvement,” he says.

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition didn’t create the index from the ground up; it’s built on work already done for the Outdoor Industry Association’s Eco Index and Nike’s Material Assessment Tool.

This is just the beginning for the index. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition is already working on the next iteration, which will include–you guessed it–social and labor metrics. “It’s a lot harder to come together on an agreement for a common framework for assessing practices and policies [in labor and social issues]. It has taken a lot longer to build a consensus because companies have clear ideas about what works for them,” says Kibbey. “With sustainability, it’s a little more open, still early, and companies are more eager to learn from one another.”

The next version of the index will be released in 2013.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more

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