Behind the scenes at the Sustainable Apparel Coalition

The Odd Couple

Walmart and Patagonia, who gave birth to the coalition, are an odd corporate couple -- the Bentonville behemoth and the hip California outfit that got its start making gear for mountain climbers. The companies were brought together by Jib Ellison, the founder of BluSkye, who advised Walmart and its CEO, Lee Scott, on sustainability. A world-class rafting guide, Ellison is also a longtime friend of Ridgeway, a mountain climber, filmmaker and author who went to work for Patagonia after serving on its board.

One thing led to another and Yvon Chouinard was invited to speak at a big Walmart sustainability meeting, after which Mary Fox, Walmart’s senior VP for apparel sourcing, sought out Ridgeway. “We wanted to become more sustainable but we really didn’t know how,” Fox said. She explained to me that she went to Ridgeway and his colleagues at Patagonia and said, in essence, “please teach us everything you know.”

Ridgeway hesitated. Walmart, which had pledged to sell more environmentally-friendly products, wanted to expand its offering of organic cotton apparel. That niche had been cultivated and promoted by Patagonia. “They would probably commoditize organic cotton and they would certainly strain the supply chain,” Ridgeway said. Why share business intelligence with a rival?

But Patagonia, a privately-held firm, has an unusual mission statement: Use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisisWith that in mind, Ridgeway agreed to work with Fox and Walmart, and it was during those sessions that the idea for a broader effort, aimed at setting industry-wide metrics, took root. Someone suggested calling the project David and Goliath. “Sure, but on one condition,” replied a Walmart exec. “You’re Goliath and we’re David.” Everyone laughed, and Walmart agreed to fund the project’s development.

Ridgeway (left) and Fox put together a steering committee, taking care to invite only companies and executives that they believed would support the effort. They chose not to work with any existing industry group.

“An industry association, by definition, exists to protect the interests of all its members,” notes BluSkye’s John Whalen. “We started with a set of companies that we were confident would want to set a high bar and move fast.”

They also insisted that companies designate one person to work on the coalition, and send that person to all its meetings. “We didn’t want to get new people up to speed, every time we got together,” Ridgeway said.

Some companies had to be persuaded to join. On a series of conference calls, Mary Fox did her best to convince Nike that Walmart was serious about sustainability. “They were pummeling me with questions,” she recalled. Getting Nike was critical because the company had built a design tool and database, called the Nike Considered Index,analyzing the environmental impact of materials that go into footwear and apparel. Later, Nike agreed to make its database public and share it with the coalition.

The group held a get-acquainted dinner in New York early in 2010. Fox took them on a tour of Walmart’s office and showroom in the Fashion District. “My competitors, Target, Kohl’s and J.C. Penney, couldn’t believe that I was taking them around the office,” she said. In April, 2010, the group held its first official meeting in Chicago. Participants included Patagonia, Walmart, Target, Gap, Kohl’s, Levi’s, Nike, J.C. Penney, Esquel, H&M, Hanes, Li & Fung, Marks & Spencer, The Otto Group, Timberland, Duke University, the EPA, the Environmental Defense Fund and nonprofit labor-rights group Verite.

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