The story of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition begins with a letter designed to get the attention of even a busy CEO. At the top: the logos of Walmart and Patagonia. John Fleming, who was then Walmart’s chief merchandising officer, and Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia’s founder, signed the letter, which invited chief executives of some of the world’s biggest clothing companies–fierce competitors, ordinarily -- to join together to develop an index to measure the environmental impact of their products.
Their pitch, in part, read like this:
Creating a single approach for measuring sustainability in the apparel sector will do much more than accelerate meaningful social and environmental change. Standardization will enable us to maximize sustainability benefits for all buyers without investing in multiple sustainability technologies and certification processes, and ultimately empower consumers to trust claims regarding sustainably sourced apparel.
Finally, as an industry, we will benefit from the unique opportunity to shape policy and create standards for measuring sustainability before government inevitably imposes one.
…The time is right and the need is great for the apparel sector to move forward now, without further delay, in unison, with strong partners like you.
It was a risky proposition. What if it turned out that a competing company had a better sustainability story to tell? Would consumers be given access to the index? NGOs? Regulators? Most big retailers knew that they had very little visibility deep into their supply chains. Did they really want to find out, for example, that a supplier to one of their suppliers, in a factory they had never visited in China or Vietnam, exploited workers or dumped pollution into a nearby river? Any meaningful index would require companies to ask tough questions and, eventually, face demands from others to share what they had learned.
The letter went out on October 1, 2009. Less than three years later, despite those risks, the apparel industry has made major progress towards creating a global sustainability index, the Higg Index, to measure and score products, factories and companies. A first version was released today by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the nonprofit group that developed the index.
Its vision? Nothing less than “an apparel and footwear industry that produces no unnecessary environmental harm and has a positive impact on the people and communities associated with its activities.” The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) hired an executive director, Jason Kibbey, in January, and today it has more than 60 members, representing brands, retailers and suppliers who together account for more than a third of the global apparel and footwear industry.
Consumers won’t see labels with scores attached to their T-shirts, dresses or sports jackets for years, but some companies are already using the tool to measure the energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, chemical use and waste of their factories around the world.
The coalition and the index mean to do more than drive incremental change, Jason Kibbey (left) told me when we spoke last week. “This is about industry transformation so everyone can benefit from reduced risk as well as efficiency,” he said.
How and why did the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and the Higg Index come together so quickly? To find out, I interviewed key players including Kibbey; Rick Ridgeway, the vice president of environmental initiatives at Patagonia and a member of the SAC’s board; Mary Fox, a former Walmart executive, who with Ridgeway got the coaliation going; Michelle Harvey of Environmental Defense Fund, a member of the group’s board; and John Whalen, a principal at BluSkye, a boutique consulting firm that helped guide the process. This story shows what an industry can do when people get together, commit to a goal and set aside as best they can their personal and corporate agendas.
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