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Behind the Apparel Industry's New Eco Index

[Editor's Note: For news coverage of the Eco Index, see Jonathan Bardelline's article "Levi's, Outdoor Industry Join Forces for Product Footprint Tool."]

Outdoor Industry Association's Eco Index is prime time for piloting, meaning the Beta Version is now available on the new Eco Index site here for industries to internally assess environmental aspects along their supply chain. Even though recent reports from media outlets like Fast Company and The Wall Street Journal have intimated that this is a consumer-facing label, Eco Working Group members like Jill Dumain, Director of Environmental Strategy at Patagonia and Chair of the Eco Working Group Advisory Council, affirm that this is an "internal supply chain facing tool to assess the environmental impacts of individual products."

"This session was the kick-off to the pilot program," says Beth Jensen, Corporate Responsibility Manager of OIA. "It gave the 100 or so attendees who have been a part of the Eco Working Group a detailed overview of the tool and real-life examples of how to use the index for a number of different products."

The Eco Index is divided up into three different "levels" including Guidelines, Indicators and Metrics to assess the impacts within six product lifecycle stages, which include, Materials, Packaging, Product Manufacturing and Assembly, Transport and Distribution, Use of Service, and End of Life. Testing products through the Eco Index during this Beta period and providing feedback will be essential to the evolution of the Index. The Group wants to ensure that this tool is useful for any company of any size and for any product -- whether it be a hard good, like a camping stove; a soft good, like a jacket; and other "hybrid" products, like footwear.

Sample items run through the Index were presented by Jamie Bainbridge, Materials Research Director at NAU, who tried two hard shell jackets at the Indicator level; Peter Girard, formerly on the Timberland Environmental Stewardship team and now Senior Consultant at PE International, focused on a footwear product at the Metrics level; Steve Grind, Product Manager at Cascade Designs focused on a camping stove on the Indicators level; and Joe McSwiney, President of Cascade Designs highlighted the Facilities Indicators.

McSwiney joked that the Index looked arduous but was relatively simple to use. The Index essentially provides a series of questions about a product and a point system attributed to that question. If you don't know an answer to a question, you most often will check the "0" point box or the "negative" point box and then you move on. This comparative scoring system at Indicator level provides a standardized level achievement and the data capture tool at Metric level provides a means to collect quantitative data.

"You basically keep reading until you're stuck and that's your score," McSwiney laughed. "What you learn from that, however, is very useful," he continued. "The missed scores are in fact the most useful scores. I basically came away saying, 'Wow, look at all the things that we can do to improve.' It really gives you a great framework to work within."

Jamie Bainbridge agreed: "I found that if we could third-party verify our products -- be it for recycled content or risk substances -- we could do much better as a company." She also noted through her presentation that there were some questions that she had to take an educated guess at. In the End of Life stage for what percentage of your product can be recycled, for instance, she noted that nearly all of her product could potentially be recycled, but didn't know if the consumer would know how to recycle it or if he or she even had access to recycling centers that could recycle it.

"We built this jacket now to address a recycling market that I hope will exist in the future, so I feel like I did the right thing now so the right thing can be done in the future when the jacket is worn out," she explained. However, she noted that she wouldn't allow herself to take the 1 point attributed to that Indicator question in the Eco Index because she couldn't truly say that they can recycle "100%" of the product. "I'm encouraging my company to take the more conservative route so that I can do best as a designer for my company," she said, which seemed to resonate with a number of people in the audience. "I can only practically recycle the polyester materials," she remarked, "so that will go in my feedback of using this tool and how it scored my product."

Pete Girard who was intimately involved with Timberland's Green Index, their company-wide, consumer-facing tool which measures the environmental impact of their products, said that the methodology of both tools is essentially the same. "As I was going through the Eco Index," he explains, "I realized we didn't really have much data on waste and water. The Eco Index helps prioritize the issues and reveals that we need to get more water data in our supply chain."

At present, the Eco Index does not provide an overarching score or ranking for finished products; does not provide a consumer-facing tool; and will not undergo the development of Phase 2 testing, which includes Transportation Guidelines, Delivered Product Metrics, Consumer End Use Product Metrics, and Full Lifecycle Product Metrics, until they have a third-party review of the Eco Index (as conducted by CERES) and final pilot program feedback.

Companies interested in trial testing their products through the Eco Index can do so at the Eco Index Beta site and register there to provide feedback. Organizations that want to participate in Phase 2 and be a part of the Eco Working Group can register at the Outdoor Industry Association's website.

We'll be doing some presentations on behalf of the Eco Index in the New York area in October and December, so if you're interested, be sure to tune in to Source4Style's blog, S4 and on Huffington Post.

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