Chemical-free products are not possible. The only things in this world that are chemical-free are light and energy. Without chemicals, life would be nonexistent.
Poor chemicals management -- not chemicals in their entirety -- are the problem. Learning how to better manage chemicals in the supply chain is a huge challenge. It's the basis of the work of the Chemicals Management Working Group (CMWG), a joint collaborative effort of Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC).
If you ask a pastry chef the secret to a delicious cake, chances are the answer will include the words: "quality ingredients." The chef may not be involved in creating the ingredients, but a good chef is diligent about their selection of ingredients in order to ensure quality, consistency and safety. The same approach applies to chemicals management. It's about knowing your inputs.
"Producing quality products is not luck, it's intentional," says Greg Scott of Mountain Equipment Co-op, a Canadian retailer which is a member of the CMWG steering committee. "Chemicals management is about helping our suppliers identify and select the best ingredients to meet our quality expectations."
This is the premise for the new Chemicals Management Module (CMM), a structured set of best practices for chemicals management developed by the CMWG. That group is a multi-stakeholder, global initiative focused on a comprehensive and transparent approach toward sustainable chemistry, and one of several issue-specific groups under the umbrella of the Outdoor Industry Association Sustainability Working Group (OIA SWG).
A tool for companies
Using foundational, progressive and aspirational indicators, the CMM, which is also known as the Chemicals Management Framework, gives businesses a tool to assess the chemicals management practices within their companies and supply chains against shared industry benchmarks for best practices. It helps companies develop a comprehensive roadmap for integrating a chemicals management system into their operations. This may include highlighting opportunities for improvement and the external resources, tools, and services that can help companies achieve their chemicals management action plans.
Though managed and financially supported by the Outdoor Industry Association Sustainability Working Group (OIA SWG), the Chemicals Management Module was developed as a mutual effort between OIA and the SAC. The CMM indicators will be integrated into the Higg Index to bolster the chemicals management portion of what is fast becoming the global standard for assessing the sustainability of apparel and footwear supply chains. Tracing its roots back to the OIA SWG, the Higg Index is under the stewardship of the SAC, which represents nearly 40 percent of the retail value of apparel and footwear globally.
The outdoor and fashion industries, like most industries, rely on the use of chemicals as the foundation for their products. In order to ensure that products are safe throughout their lifecycles, it's imperative to have a clear understanding of the chemicals used throughout the manufacturing process. A successful chemicals management tool must both assess and account for the complexity of the global supply chain, while ensuring that harmful substances are not simply restricted at the point of use, but engineered out of the system altogether.
The CMM tool helps companies begin that process by providing a shared path toward sustainable chemistry. It breaks down a topic that can be overwhelming and difficult to address. It provides a shared strategic guide for companies in the outdoor and fashion industries -- and beyond -- to better manage the chemicals they use to create products.
The CMM tool was designed to assess the depth and quality of practices at the specific stakeholder level in the supply chain, from retailer to chemical supplier. It has undergone extensive development and stakeholder review, and is currently being implemented in organizations from the outdoor, sport, and fashion industries.
"I think one of the smartest things all brands should do is perform an assessment of their practices against the CMM," says Kevin Myette, REI's former director of product integrity and sustainability and a member of the CMWG steering committee. "It is an enormously useful instrument to learn where they have gaps, and everyone does. Then they can logically plan their strategies to fill the gaps which are most meaningful and useful to them."
Myette notes that the CMM is industry-developed and vetted, freely available, and it provides guidance for everyone, from the beginners to experts.
A monumental challenge
There are numerous hurdles in managing supply chain chemicals. With the reality of the interconnected supply chains in the outdoor and fashion industries, collaboration is at the heart of addressing these challenges and moving toward safer, non-hazardous chemistries. To this end, the OIA/SAC Chemicals Management Working Group has established a partnership with the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals group of brands to explore specific shared issues, such as the use of durable water repellency technologies.
As part of this collaboration, the CMM will also be used as a key input toward the joint development of chemicals management-specific environmental management system guidance for the industry.
In fact, there are several industry-led and driven groups that work in chemistry from slightly different angles. We at the CMWG want to develop a common understanding of what each does and how we can create synergies among our groups' work. The membership overlap among these groups is profound, further illustrating the enormous opportunities for truly groundbreaking collaboration to address the complex challenge of managing chemicals in product supply chains.
"The only way we're going to make this happen as an industry is by working together on this and making it a priority," says Bob Buck of DuPont, another member of the CMWG steering committee.
Members of the Chemicals Management Working Group contributed to this column.
Test tube image by motorolka via Shutterstock.