Levi's, Outdoor Industry Join Forces for Product Footprint Tool

Levi's, Outdoor Industry Join Forces for Product Footprint Tool

Boots - CC license by Flickr user Torpe

How much water went into making your jeans? How much energy was used to manufacture those hiking boots? What's the carbon footprint of a windbreaker?

A new tool developed by the outdoor gear industry hopes to answer those questions and more to help companies understand what goes into their products and then improve any stage, from sourcing raw materials to recycling clothing.

The Eco Index, a project of the Outdoor Industry Association's (OIA) Eco Working Group, is being launched this week at the Outdoor Retailer trade show for beta testing by any company that's interested. It's intended for a range of products, from clothes to backpacks to camp stoves.

"It helps you identify the holes in the sustainability of your product and the impact your product is having," said Beth Jensen, OIA's corporate responsibility manager.

The version of the Eco Index being released isn't complete, but the OIA wanted to get a version out and in use so it can gather feedback and tweak it if necessary as it finishes up the rest of the Eco Index.

From Guidelines to Facts and Figures

The Eco Index, a web-based tool, has three levels, Jensen said, which are guidelines, indicators and metrics. The guidelines are just what they sound like, guidelines for how companies can be more conscious and sustainable when making products.

"You could just launch a set of indicators, but if there are no guidelines about why the questions are important or why factories should be doing certain things, the indicators are useless," said Betsy Blaisdell, Timberland's senior manager of environmental stewardship. 

The indicator level is where companies score individual products by answering yes/no questions related to materials, packaging, manufacturing and assembly, transportation and distribution, use and service, and end of life.

Within the packaging section, for example, a company is asked if it has a restricted substance list, how much post-consumer recycled content it uses, if it sources materials from certified sources and other questions.

The third level, metrics, is where companies plug in all the nitty gritty details to get product-specific information on energy and greenhouse gas emissions, water, waste, land use, chemicals and toxics in humans and the environment, and biodiversity.

All in all, the Eco Index is about 80 percent complete. By early 2011, the OIA plans to have this first phase of testing complete. Later this year it will form working groups to flesh out the missing details, which are the transportation and distribution indicators and metrics for land use, chemicals and toxics, and biodiversity. Those groups will work through 2011 on the final version.

The OIA's Eco Working Group formed in 2007 out of a desire in the outdoor industry for a common way to rate and talk about sustainability. "We needed to get everyone talking in the same language," Jensen said.

Early discussions were spurred by Timberland's pioneering work with its own product assessment and environmental label. The company initially wanted a tool for designers and developers to use while working on products to help them make better choices, and it turned into a customer-facing label that shows the climate impact, chemical use and resource consumption behind products.

The Eco Working Group is now made up of more than 100 companies covering all types of outdoor apparel and equipment like REI, Patagonia, Adidas and Columbia Sportswear, and has even attracted companies like Levi Strauss, which isn't as much of an outdoor company as, say, Timberland (TBL), but is just as interested in the impacts of their wares.

In 2007 Levi completed life cycle assessments (LCAs) on its 501 jeans and Dockers khaki pants (PDF of results), and soon the company's designers started asking for more information on the impacts of products and even individual materials, said Colleen Kohlsaat, Levi Strauss' senior manager of environmental sustainability.

The company started working on its own assessment tool, then found out about the Eco Working Group and hopped on board. "We've been working closely with them ever since, sharing our learnings from our own life cycle assessment and working to help build industry consensus on common metrics," Kohlsaat said.

Based its own assessment of jeans and khakis, Levi put it support behind the Better Cotton Initiative and created a new care tag to encourage people to wash clothes in cold water and line dry to reduce the energy consumed during the use of pants.

Boosting Smaller Brands

The companies in the working group also range greatly in size, and part of the thinking behind the Eco Index is to help smaller companies get the information they need and create a shared pool of information.

"A lot of these small brands don't have resources dedicated to measuring these impacts," Blaisdell said. "They are passionate about sustainability...but they don't necessarily have the resources and processes."

The common approach will also lighten the load on suppliers, she said. If companies are asking for the same information in the same way, suppliers will be able to spend less time on answering different demands and more time on solutions.

Currently the Eco Index is intended to be an internal tool for companies to use to assess their products. What they end up with is a picture of where they are making the most and least impacts along with a roadmap of what they need to work on.

A related consumer-facing label could follow, but it's not at the top of discussions right now. "That is something we are going to look at down the road," said Jensen. "It's not something we intend should be touted to consumers at this point."

Boots - CC license by Flickr user Torpe