Leadership

Setting Standards: Sustainable Apparel Coalition Wins Industry Backing

By Ernie Smith / Nov 1, 2013 Levi's Waste<Less jeans, shown, are created from recycled plastic water bottles. (Levi's press photo)

With a secret weapon in the form of a standardized measurement tool, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is playing a key role in encouraging better clothing industry practices on sustainability. The key to the initiative’s success? Collaboration and wide industry support.

The clothing industry has been making itself over lately.

As we reported recently, Fair Trade USA is working to improve factory conditions in the industry. Meanwhile, another group is trying to improve the business from a different direction—through the materials manufacturers use.

Why were the reluctant companies now embracing the assessment? Because their peers and competitors had proven it was possible and had shared their experiences.

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), which counts more than 100 major companies among its members (including clothing brands such as Adidas and Hanes, as well as retail giants such as Target, H&M, and JCPenney), is working to create stronger standards for sustainable products. More details below:

Measuring success: One of the coalition’s first major initiatives since its 2011 launch is the Higg Index, a measure that allows companies to track sustainability efforts throughout the supply chain, as well as to reduce risk and redundancy. “The Higg Index 1.0 is a learning tool for both small and large companies to identify challenges and capture ongoing improvement,” the coalition explains. “It targets a spectrum of performance that allows beginners and leaders in environmental sustainability, regardless of company size, to identify opportunities.” With some companies already having worked sustainability strategies into their overall approach—such as Nike, whose Materials Sustainability Index (MSI) database has long tracked sustainability levels in the supply chain—the Higg Index adopts and improves on elements of these corporate initiatives, with the goal being eventually to show this information on clothing labels.

A holistic approach: While Fair Trade USA is focusing on smaller steps, apparel companies taking part in SAC are thinking big on sustainability. So while Levi Strauss has designed a line of jeans created from plastic bottles, for example, the company is working on a more holistic approach as well. “It’s not about offering a niche green product,” Jonathan Kirby, vice president of global men’s design for Levi Strauss, told Industry Leaders Magazine. “We’re working to build sustainability into everything—from the cotton fields to our supply chain, to our stores, to our designs across product lines.”

Success breeds success: According to SAC Executive Director Jason Kibbey, it took a while for the initiative to take off within the industry, but its success eventually led more companies to jump on board. “Why were the reluctant companies now embracing the assessment? Because their peers and competitors had proven it was possible and had shared their experiences. Neither the first nor the last to make change paid a price for their pace of transformation,” he wrote in The Guardian earlier this year. Kibbey says a key to the success is increased industry collaboration.

The association isn’t resting on its laurels; an updated version of the Higg Index is already in the works.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now and a former newspaper guy. More »

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