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

OAKLAND, CA — 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.