Apparel Companies of All Stripes Come Together to Test the Eco Index

Companies that make outdoor gear have an obvious and vested interest in protecting the environment. So it was no surprise when the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) announced its Eco Index, an ambitious project to create an index by which its members can measure the footprints their products leave behind, last summer. One of the index's architects, Levi Strauss & Co, might seem like an outsider in the outdoor arena. But as Colleen Kohlsaat, director of Levi's Global Environmental Sustainability Team, told attendees at the 2011 State of Green Business Forum in San Francisco Thursday, the Eco Index is all about collaboration between a diverse group of stakeholders.

In fact, the Index, still in beta, is shaping up to become a tool that apparel companies across the spectrum -- from wool socks to haute couture -- put to use. The American Apparel & Footwear Association has endorsed the Index and is strongly encouraging its member companies to test and help further develop the index. The World Federation of the Sporting Good Industry and the Sustainable Fashion Business Consortium are also using the index.

State of Green Business

Companies in the apparel and footwear industries don't want to re-invent the wheel when it comes to product indexes, Kohlsaat said, and they're keenly interested in pooling their resources.

Having worked with consultants to perform life cycle analyses on a number of products, Levi's was looking for a tool that it could use to rate its products in a repeatable and standard manner. When it learned about the work the Eco Working Group was doing, Kohlsaat says, the decision to join the effort was an easy and obvious one for Levi's. And so far, so good.

"Everyone has an equal voice, they all have trust and are in the spirit of working together," said Kohlsaat of the work she and her colleagues on the OIA's Eco Working Group are putting toward developing the index. "I don't want to sound like a Polly Anna," she adds, "it sounds like a fairy tale, but it is actually amazing. When I think of the other groups I'm involved with, nothing compares. It's amazing."

Approximately 100 companies have piloted the Eco Index since it was launched late last summer, and the Eco Working Group is currently working through the feedback it has received thus far as it moves towards finalizing a Phase 1 version of the index, which it hopes to release by Spring.

The index uses a framework that addresses the lifecyle of each product, and it's being built out in steps. In Phase 1 of the index, each product's score will be measured using three metrics: water, waste and greenhouse gas emissions. As the Eco Working Group further refines the tool, it will also add four more metrics: land use intensity; biodiversity; toxicity in relation to people; and toxicity as it relates to the environment.