Over the past decade and more, industry associations and individual companies have launched numerous initiatives with the aim of addressing and reducing the environmental and social impacts of clothing manufacture. However, this year the clothing industry's collective effort witnessed what many hope will be a game-changing development with the formation of a new multi-stakeholder partnership.  

In March, a group of leading clothing and footwear manufacturers joined with prominent retailers, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), academics and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to launch the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC).

Founding members include Adidas, Arvind Mills, C&A, Duke University, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Esprit, Esquel, Gap Inc, H&M, HanesBrands, Intradeco, JC Penney, Kohl's Department Stores, Lenzing, Levi Strauss & Co, LF USA (a division of Li & Fung Limited), Marks & Spencer, Mountain Equipment Co-op, New Balance, Nike, Nordstrom, Otto Group, Outdoor Industry Association, Patagonia, Pentland Brands, REI, TAL Apparel, Target, Timberland, US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Verité, VF Corp, and Walmart.

 At its launch, SAC said it planned to work collaboratively to reduce environmental and social impacts in the following ways:-

  • leading the industry toward a shared vision of sustainability built on an industry-wide index for measuring and evaluating apparel and footwear product sustainability;
  • spotlighting promising technological innovations;
  • and identifying opportunities for improving current social and environmental practices throughout the supply chain by collaborating to establish consistent expectations for brands, retailers and manufacturers

Tools would be developed "with the involvement of a wide range of stakeholders," while the metrics would be "fully transparent" in order to encourage broad adoption of the index globally. SAC also said it would draw on the work of existing programmes to measure and track apparel sustainability such as the Eco Index created by the US-based Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) and Nike's Environmental Apparel Design tools.

Taking collective action to a new level
Bringing disparate groups together in such collaborations is always a challenge but Rick Ridgeway, vice president of environmental programmes at Patagonia and chair of SAC, says it has been surprising how quickly common ground has been established.

"All of us in the coalition, corporations, NGOs, academic institutions and government agencies, have been surprised at the speed with which we have been able to align around our goals, and progress down the path of achieving them," Ridgeway tells just-style. "That is because the timing is right: everyone in this group recognises that our current business practices must change if we are to continue to do business on a planet with increasingly constrained natural resources."

Amy Kleiner-Roberts, vice president for government affairs at the Outdoor Industry Association, adds that SAC has "raised the issue of sustainability to a new awareness in the clothing sector by publicly coming together, rolling up their sleeves and taking on the very difficult challenge of addressing the environmental impacts of our manufacturing process and the raw materials that go into making apparel."

Kleiner-Roberts continues: "I think by publicly stating goals that are aspirational and discussing the environmental challenges we face, the clothing sector has made a commitment to continuous improvement in a very transparent way."

Aims of the Coalition
SAC has categorised its "desired environmental and social outcomes" under four headings: water use and quality; energy/greenhouse gas; waste; and social/labour. The ten aims are as follows:-

Water use and quality

  • Improve water-use efficiency and/or re-use in cultivation or production of raw materials (e.g. cotton) and the manufacturing of apparel products
  • Minimise the volume and chemical constituents of water discharges associated with manufacturing of apparel products and eliminate impacts to local communities
  • Reduce the need for water use in garment care by challenging conventional washing practices and developing alternative approaches

Energy and greenhouse gases

  • Minimise direct and embedded energy use and carbon in apparel products
  • Drive innovative design and technology to create apparel products that mitigate other carbon impacts in society (such as reducing the need for heating and air conditioning systems)

Waste

  • Develop effective uses for textile waste, creating a second life for materials
  • Commit to minimising waste in our operations, supply chain and end-of-life of apparel products 

Chemicals/toxicity

  • Reduce the use of chemicals and potentially hazardous materials which pose health or environmental risks if not properly handled in cultivation or production of raw materials and the manufacturing of apparel products

 Social/Labour

  • Collaborate with industry peers and supply chain partners to achieve full life-cycle transparency (back to origin of material) about the social and ethical performance impacts of all companies and products
  • Ensure all workplaces are fair, safe and non-discriminatory, including zero exposure to toxic chemicals

NGO participation
Undoubtedly a key strength of the new initiative is the involvement of non-industry stakeholders, in particular non-government organisations (NGOs). Other multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) have shown that this form of collaboration can be highly productive. NGOs can be a vital source of information and insight, lending by definition a complementary perspective to those of the corporate members.

The MSI model is not uniform and many types of initiative exist. In many cases, however, the impetus for the multi-stakeholder collaboration comes from industry which typically provides the lion's share or all of the funding. But by embracing the third sector as partners, such initiatives gain great credibility. There is no doubt that MSIs tend to have higher credibility with government, consumers and other actors than those undertaken by industry alone.

However, this means that NGOs are very careful about partnering in such initiatives. Indeed, some campaign groups, such as Greenpeace, are particularly cagey and would do this rarely if ever. This to a degree reflects the dynamics of the campaign community. Those remaining unaligned are in a position to continue pressuring companies involved in an MSI which a participating NGO may find more difficult to do.

Also, a frequent criticism of MSIs is that they tend to make slow progress, and campaigners on the outside can push a multi-stakeholder partnership to move faster in a way that one sitting within the circle could not. As Martin Hojsík, toxics water campaign coordinator at Greenpeace International, puts it, "you need the impatient ones on the outside because they provide the extra pressure. They provide the leverage for those on the inside to keep the thing moving."

While Greenpeace has a particularly iconic 'brand' to protect, any NGO will be cautious about adding its name to such a programme and would want to be sure that the companies involved are serious in intent, and that they are not being drawn into a 'greenwash' exercise.

Ridgeway was keen to stress that the NGO members have a "voice" in the Coalition. "The NGOs who are members have the same voice in the coalition as the corporate members, but do not pay dues," he explains. "I use the word 'voice' because our current governance is a consensus-based model, and there is no voting. That structure is changing soon." 

Industry coverage
While SAC can certainly call itself a multi-stakeholder initiative, not least as it includes the US Environmental Protection Agency as a member, its NGO membership is relatively limited in comparison with the number of corporate members. Of course, a large number of corporate members is often a strength in such a venture, giving the initiative greater industry coverage.

SAC's initial corporate membership has been limited to companies that were invited to join but, as Ridgeway points out, the companies represent a large market share. "Our coalition is also set apart by the size of our group: collectively we represent nearly 30% of the global market share for apparel and footwear," he says. SAC intends to introduce an open membership policy next year.

The three NGOs which are formal members of SAC are the Environmental Defense Fund, Verité and the World Resource Institute. In addition, there are other external stakeholders, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which SAC has engaged to review and comment on the development of its sustainability index.

The strength of multi-stakeholder collaboration has been shown by the progress made by the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) in improving working conditions in clothing supply chains in developing countries.

ETI spokesperson Julia Hawkins believes the collaboration with NGOs and trade unions has been extremely positive for member companies as they look to address difficult challenges in their supply chains. "These issues are endemic; no company can solve them on their own and that's why working in a collaborative space within ETI is really important. NGOs and trade unions provide a vital reality check," says Hawkins, adding that the collaboration provides the initiative with "a unique credibility and rigour."

But non-industry members provide more than just credibility, Hawkins explains. "Companies can provide us with very rich information but critically it's the trade unions and local organisations on the ground that can really provide the socio-economic and the cultural context, the political environment, to build up a picture where you can see this is where the problems are and this is where we can exert our collective leverage."

Greenpeace, which is currently campaigning to force clothing companies to eliminate the release of hazardous chemicals into rivers in China during manufacture, said in March that it cautiously welcomed the formation of SAC, along with its plans for greater transparency and benchmarking, adding that it would be "keeping a close eye on how it works in practice".