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Just How Green Are Your Hiking Boots? Industry Aims to Find Out

<p>It makes sense -- and comes not a moment too soon -- that the companies that sell outdoor apparel and equipment have come up with common standards to measure the environmental impact of their products.</p>

In a world where it's so hot or dry that no one wants to hike, bike, run or climb, outdoorsy companies like Nike, Patagonia, REI and Timberland will be in deep trouble.

So it makes sense -- and it's certainly about time -- for the companies that sell outdoor apparel and equipment to come up with common standards to measure the environmental impact of their products.

This week, an industry group called the Outdoor Industry Alliance announced that its members have spent several years doing just that. The companies unveiled "a ground breaking environmental assessment tool" that they call an Eco Index, saying:

It provides companies throughout the supply chain a way to benchmark and measure their environmental footprint, allowing them to identify areas for improvement and make informed sourcing and product life cycle decisions.

It sounds good, doesn't it? The trouble is, the group says it will take a long time for the industry to develop and agree on standards that are simple, reliable and meaningful enough to present them to consumers. In fact, there's no commitment to turn the index into a shopper-friendly tool, the industry says:

The current focus of the index is to be an internal/supply chain facing tool and not a consumer-facing label. This focus could be revisited in future years.

That's disappointing. It's particularly disappointing because one company -- Timberland -- has demonstrated that it's possible to measure and report on the impact of its products. As it happens, Timberland today (Aug. 3) convened a conference call to talk about its own Green Index and how it fits into the new industry-wide initiative.

Jeffrey SwartzJeff Swartz, the CEO of Timberland and a leader of the corporate-responsibility movement, said he wants to play nicely with competitors and other retailers, as the industry tries to settle on common metrics. "We can't afford a Betamax-VHS debate," he said. "Harmonization is an imperative."

At the same time, Swartz made clear that he's frustrated by the slow pace of the industry initiative.

Without labels or online data that enable consumers to compare, say, a boot from Timberland with one from Steve Madden or UGG, companies that do the right thing -- whether by eliminating harmful chemicals from their products, using more recycled materials, or putting solar power on the roof of a store -- will struggle to get rewarded for their efforts, which frequently add costs.

This isn't a problem only for Timberland. Patagonia, Nike, Levi's and REI have all undertaken meaningful sustainability efforts.

"Consumers need information that helps them discriminate between brands," Swartz said.

The challenge is especially acute for brands that distribute through mainstream retailers because sales people there are less likely than those in specialty stores to know, or care, about sustainability issues.

Said Swartz: "It's very hard for me at Nordstrom or Macy's or places like that to present outdoor product, thoughtfully made, and have the consumer value it."

None of this is meant to suggest the rating products is simple. David Labistour, the CEO of a Canadian retailer called Mountain Equipment Co-op, who joined Swartz on the call, said even a seemingly simple question–is a garment made of organic cotton?–can be complicated by such variables as the amount of water needed to grow the cotton, the labor standards on the farm, or the lifecycle impact of using cotton versus polyester, which needs less time in the dryer.

Labistour pointed out that it's been impossible, so far, to get the industry to agree on performance standards for products, for which there's presumably greater consumer demand.

"What is the difference between a Patagonia waterproof jacket and a North Face waterproof jacket?" he asked. Which sleeping bag is warmest? Right now, there's no way for a consumer to know.

Still, Timberland's Green Index shows what can be done. Introduced in 2007, it measures a variety of product impacts–the greenhouse gases generated through production, the presence of hazardous chemicals in the products and the use of recycled, organic or renewable materials–and uses a formula to come up with a single score for each product. (You can read more about the methods here and download a 16-page 2009 report on the Index from Timberland's information-packed website.) Here's a sample label:



How's Timberland doing? That's hard to say because its performance can't be compared to industry norms. During the second quarter of this year, the company's average score was 6.91 on a scale of zero to 10, where lower scores mean a lighter footprint. "It ain't so good, and it's slightly worse than it was this time a year ago," he said. Partly that's because fall and winter products, which are heavier and therefore have a greater impact, are shipping earlier this year. Not until the end of next year will Timberland reach the point where it can apply the Green Index to all of its footwear. "It's very perplexing if you're a consumer," Swartz.

Even more discouraging, there's not much evidence that most consumers care all that much about the environmental impact of the things they buy. I'm at the beach in Delaware this week and, I swear, 80 percent of the vehicles here are minivans or SUVs, EPA mileage ratings notwithstanding.

"I don't think we can rely on consumers," said Labistour.

And yet–there are reasons to be encouraged as the outdoor industry, along with others, stumbles gradually towards standards and metrics.

Most consumers may not care, but a growing number of young shoppers do. So do the people who work at companies like Timberland and REI. Other pressures are coming from major retailers like Wal-Mart, with its sustainability consortium, and from the new initiative from UL Environment and Greener World Media. (See The Business of Rating Business.) Good Guide is another step in the right direction.

Bottom line: We're closer than ever to the point where shoppers have access to simple, meaningful and reliable information about the sustainability of the things they buy. That's got to be a good thing. Senior Writer Marc Gunther is a longtime journalist and speaker whose focus is business and sustainability. Marc maintains a blog at You can follow him on Twitter @marcGunther.

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

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