The Outdoor Industry Associations Eco Index helps firms navigate the sustainability of their products

The Outdoor Industry Association's Eco Index helps firms navigate the sustainability of their products

Leading apparel and footwear brands, retailers and manufacturers including Nike, Gap Inc, H&M, Levi Strauss, Marks & Spencer and Walmart are driving a new initiative to improve sustainability across the entire apparel and footwear sector.

Working under the umbrella of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the firms want to develop an industry-wide index that measures everything from water and energy use to greenhouse gas emissions, waste, and labour practices.

The ultimate goal is for the index to be adopted globally - and to be used by companies throughout the industry to reduce the environmental and social impacts of their products from design through production to recycling.

As well as highlighting opportunities to improve current social and environmental practices across the supply chain, they also hope the scheme will make it easier for brands, retailers, and manufacturers to discuss their expectations with each other.

"The largest and most influential corporations in apparel and footwear together with leading environmental and social organisations have voluntarily engaged in this collective effort because they recognise the opportunity to get in front of the growing need to measure and manage the environmental and social impacts of their products," explains Rick Ridgeway, Coalition chair and vice president of environmental programs at Patagonia.

"More importantly, they recognise the threat to the planet and its inhabitants by continuing the model of 'business as usual.'"

The group is currently made up of more than 30 annual dues-paying companies and environmental organisations from around the world - including Adidas, Arvind Mills, C&A, Esprit, Esquel, HanesBrands, JC Penney, Kohl's, Li & Fung's US division, Patagonia, Pentland Brands, TAL Apparel, Target, Timberland and VF Corp.

They have been working together informally since early 2010, and will begin beta-testing the initial version of an apparel and footwear sustainability index with their suppliers in April this year.

Once the prototype index has been pilot tested and refined, membership will be opened to a few more companies as broader testing is carried out. Open membership to the scheme is provisionally planned for 2012.

Rather than starting from scratch in developing its index, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition has decided to leverage the work that's already been done by other companies to measure and track apparel sustainability.

Key here are the Outdoor Industry Association's (OIA) Eco Index (which has already been three-years in development) and the Nike Apparel Environmental Design Tool, and the idea is to work together to create a single, common index for apparel and footwear.

Even though the Coalition says its members see the need and value of consumer-facing labels that would rate garments according to the impact their production and usage has had on the environment, the process of arriving at a single numeric score is currently too complex.

Instead, the short term priority is to use the Index to drive improvement and innovation in the global apparel supply chain.

"This effort reinforces our belief that global, industry-wide collaboration can lead to advances in sustainability that no one company, region or sector can achieve on its own," adds Frank Hugelmeyer, president of OIA.