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Walmart, Patagonia Strengthen Pact to Measure Apparel Impact

More than 30 companies and organizations — including the likes of Nike, Gap, Patagonia and Walmart — have joined forces to create the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, and the first item on their agenda is a tool to measure the environmental impacts of clothing.

Building off of the Outdoor Industry Association's (OIA) Eco Index and Nike's environmental design tool, the coalition's Sustainable Apparel Index is being crafted as an industry-wide tool for evaluating any kind of apparel. 

The first version of the Sustainable Apparel Index will be tested in the coming months by a select group of companies, and then refined. Sometime this year the index will also be updated with criteria specific to footwear.

The coalition was born out of a collaboration between Patagonia and Walmart. Rick Ridgeway, chair of the coalition and vice president of environmental initiatives at Patagonia, said that in 2009 Patagonia figured out it could combine two of its efforts: Working on the OIA's Eco Index and advising Walmart on its supplier sustainability assessment program.

"We started wondering what kind of strategy we could develop to take the work that the OIA was creating and broaden it out, to get it in place beyond the outdoor industry," Ridgeway said. "We realized to really leverage it we'd be smart to invite Walmart to join us in extending an invitation to a very large circle of companies in the apparel and footwear sector to adopt a uniform sustainability index."

The first dozen members of the coalition began meeting informally in early 2010, and its numbers have grown to include 33 apparel companies, retailers, manufacturers, NGOs, academics and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

Ridgeway said the coalition's early members decided the quickest way forward would be to build on work that has already been done. The OIA's Eco Index provided a framework for measuring outdoor gear, and Nike's Environmental Apparel Design Tool provided metrics and measurements for a wide swath of materials used in clothing.

The coalition is planning for its index to be used only internally by companies for now, and has no set plans for making a related label for consumers to see how different items score on the index.

Members of the coalition so far are Adidas, Arvind Mills, C&A, Duke University, Environmental Defense Fund, Esprit, Esquel, Gap, H&M, HanesBrands, Intradeco, JC Penney, Kohl’s, Lenzing, Levi Strauss & Co., LF USA, Marks & Spencer, Mountain Equipment Co-op, New Balance, Nike, Nordstrom, Otto Group, Outdoor Industry Association, Patagonia, Pentland Brands, REI, TAL Apparel, Target, Timberland, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Verité, VF Corp and Walmart.

Ridgeway said there are a number of reasons for companies to get involved in developing a common tool for measuring apparel's impacts. First off, it can lower supply chains cost, along with impacts. "All the participants in this group realize if they're using the same tool with their vendors, that will drive efficiencies." Companies can also use the tool to manage risks, improve reputations and get ahead of possible regulations by regulating themselves.

The coalition's overall mission is to reduce the environmental and social impacts of clothing and footwear, and to that end it will also promote promising innovations and spotlight ways to improve practices at any point in supply chains.

For-profit members pay annual dues, and the coalition is working on expanding from being invitation-only to have a more open membership structure in 2012.

In order to support the continued refinement of the index and other work, companies will likely pay a tiered licensing fee for access to the index. The intent, Ridgeway said, is to have a way to fund the work of the coalition while also making the index available to as many companies as possible.


Clothing store - CC license by (Flickr)


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