March 8, 2011 – Paulina Perlin
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition is a group of thirty-three member-founders comprised of prominent organizations, notably retail corporations like H&M, Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney, Nordstrom, Adidas, and Timberland, and more pedantic organizations, such as Duke University and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This collection of retailers and green pundits plan to tack a new factor to consumer decision-making: a retailer’s “green score.”
The coalition’s aim is simple: to create “an apparel industry that produces no unnecessary environmental harm and has a positive impact on the people and communities associated with its activities” through a systemic database of “green scores”. These scores measure a garment’s sustainability from every rung of its production– from the field to the fitting room. The tallies quantify such factors as carbon emission, energy efficiency, waste production and disposal, natural resource consumption, chemical use, and labor practices. According to group members, publishing green rankings unifies an often chaotic global manufacturing chain, generating more environmentally-informed decisions by retailers and consumers.
“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,” said Huantian Cao, an associate professor of fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware. “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.”
The coalition hopes the sustainability database can serve as a means of assessing suppliers and internal company practices. By unveiling manufacturers’ positive and negative environmental impacts through the score system, the group aims to raise industry standards and, according to its website, intends for “pre-competitive collaboration” to allow “individual companies to focus more resources on product and process innovation.” Partnering with the Sustainability Consortium, the coalition hopes to broaden its reports, extending rankings to include all nations and retail stages.
However, such a tool doesn’t come cheap. Supported by funding from member corporations, the coalition will utilize “seed funding” to seek contributions from larger companies. Rick Ridgeway, the coalition’s chairman, places database development costs at approximately $2 million by the end of 2011 — a price that many say is well worth the ecological benefits.
According to environmental groups, such as Greenpeace, the measure is long overdue. Previous attempts at green databases, such as the Outdoor Industry Association’s (OIA) “Eco Index”, have been far from all-encompassing, giving only narrow snapshots of more obscure industry sectors. Yet, these efforts construct the foundation for coalition’s current database.
“OIA is proud of the outdoor industry’s foundational contribution of the Eco Index to the work of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition,” said OIA president Frank Hugelmeyer. “This effort reinforces our belief that global, industry-wide collaboration can lead to advances in sustainability that no one company, region or sector can achieve on its own.”
For now, the coalition’s system remains in its finalizing phases. An official governing body for the group is set to be assembled in 2012. Members continue to deliberate the formal implementation of the program, as well as how to best create “green score” labels for department store garments. “The coalition members see the need and value of a consumer-facing rating for products,” the group proclaims. “However, they appreciate the complexity involved in arriving at a single numeric score.”
Yet, no matter the manifestation of the label, members remain confident in the group’s overall goal.
“People are at such different points on the sustainability journey,” stated Alex Tomey, vice president for product development and design at Wal-mart, “and working together can accelerate our ability to make change.”