Nike, Adidas and others aim for less toxic supply chains

The Right Chemistry

Nike, Adidas and others aim for less toxic supply chains

CC license by marcberryreid/Flickr

In 2004, a group of forward-thinking fashion and athletic brands with restricted substances lists (RSLs) -- featuring major players Adidas, C&A, Gap, Levi’s, Marks & Spencer and Nike -- formed an industry working group with the aim of reducing the use and impact of harmful substances in the apparel and footwear supply chain. 

Nine years later, the Apparel and Footwear International RSL Management Group (AFIRM) is 18 members strong and continuing its mission by creating and distributing new and innovative tools for supply chains around the globe and by hosting seminars to educate its global supplier base on ever-evolving best practices in chemical safety management.

Since its founding, AFIRM has met semi-annually, hosted hundreds of calls and assembled multiple taskforces to identify and solve various RSL issues including hazardous substance identification, appropriate analytical test methods and limits, laboratory performance evaluation, new regulatory requirements and best practice in education and engagement of supply chains.

AFIRM released the first version of its RSL Supplier Implementation Toolkit in 2008, a collection of resources to help suppliers understand restricted substances and implement their own factory management plan to gain control over the substances used in their raw materials. To date, AFIRM has hosted five RSL seminars across Asia to directly engage and present RSL management techniques to over 2,400 suppliers.

More recent AFIRM activity includes:

  • The second edition of the AFIRM Supplier Toolkit, a substantially improved version over the initial document, released in 2011.
  • The RSL Guidance, a review of all AFIRM brand RSLs reflecting the most stringent substance limit and corresponding test method, published in 2012. The document also includes general indicators for occurrence level within the apparel and footwear supply chains for reference.
  • An educational seminar hosted in Vietnam in November 2012, which included presentations from experts in the fields of advancing safer chemistries, responsible sourcing and greener chemical opportunities in the apparel and footwear supply chains. Also included were overviews of the updated Supplier Toolkit, the RSL Guidance document, and a hands-on training activity designed to engage and educate suppliers on best practices based on hypothetical RS failures. Suppliers were challenged to identify the appropriate corrective action plans from a variety of perspectives within the chain of custody of the hypothetical product/material failure.

Image credit: CC license by marcberryreid/Flickr

The AFIRM Supplier Toolkit has been well received by industry, member and non-member supply chains alike. It can serve as a reference tool for those organizations experienced in chemicals management or those new to a more hands-on chemical management approach. The toolkit was designed for a broad range of users, having both technical reference information and general guidance around best practice. 

The toolkit is divided into searchable sections by topic and is translated into English, Chinese and Vietnamese, with a Spanish translation planned for publication in 2013. Highlights include:

  • Matrix of chemical risks by material: A simple matrix listing different restricted chemical groups and the materials they are normally associated with in footwear and apparel production.
  • Background on restricted substances: Quick overview on the substances restricted by AFIRM member companies including where they might be used or found.
  • Factory management plan: A step-by-step outline for launching a factory management or RSL program.
  • Best practices to avoid restricted substance issues: An overview of best practices recommended for avoiding restricted substance issues arranged by material and chemical type.
  • RSL corrective actions library: A navigable library of actual restricted substance failures and the corrective actions taken to resolve them in a simple format. Each example provides guidance for preventing similar failures in the future.
  • Detailed chemical guidance document: An exhaustive technical reference explaining the chemistry involved in the production of textile products and how restricted substances can be introduced into processes and discharged into wastewater, ambient air and sludge.
  • MSDS examples and explanations: Examples of the information included in a “preferred MSDS,” including an explanation of each section. Also included are examples of non-preferred MSDS.
  • Screen printing best and worst practices: A pictorial slideshow with numerous examples of what screen print facilities should and should not look like with simple suggestions.
  • Frequently asked questions: Common questions posed by suppliers at past AFIRM-hosted seminars with detailed answers.

Despite AFIRM’s progress the past several years, the challenge of controlling restricted substances and moving towards preferred chemistries throughout the apparel and footwear supply chain continues.

The global supply chain for apparel and footwear products is a complex, multi-tier economy, and the level of technical expertise and chemical knowledge throughout supply chains varies greatly. Despite requirements and guidance of brands, global legal restrictions and NGO pressures, the adoption of alternatives assessments for safer chemistries is neither well understood nor commonly practiced. Industry progress in this area is hindered by a variety of obstacles, including the lack of chemical data flowing with materials and products through supply chains.

The brands within AFIRM’s membership only account for their fraction of the global apparel and footwear market, while in particular smaller and local suppliers often remain unsupported. The chemical knowledge resources AFIRM member brands provide have penetrated only so far into the supply chain, where language barriers often present further challenges. 

AFIRM’s core strength is the collaboration of industry experience and expertise in managing chemical safety in global supply chains. It has been AFIRM’s experience that directly reaching out to suppliers in person with seminars reviewing the content of the Supplier Toolkit and Guidance List is an example of an effective way to proactively draw attention to these issues as well as provide standardized tools and training. Consistent communication with supply chains as an industry group strengthens and supports individual brand requirements and objectives. Seminars and training continue to be opportunities for AFIRM to collectively bring attention to issues, consistently support a best practice approach and continue to raise the bar on expectations for engagement of supply chains throughout the globe.  

AFIRM member brands recognize the challenge of meaningful transparency of chemical information throughout the supply chains and the ability to control restricted and harmful substances. As such, AFIRM members embrace the opportunity and benefit of working together as a group to solve common problems, build better tools and share practices to allow more brands and supply chains to benefit from industry experience and expertise. Challenges aside, AFIRM’s ability to drive improvement is continuing to grow as new companies join and more experienced and innovative companies remain. All members have the opportunity to collaborate and lead to create common value.