The complicated mix of legal requirements, standards and certification schemes facing brands and retailers when managing chemicals in the apparel supply chain was outlined at the recent Prime Source Forum in Hong Kong. And the over-riding message is that the industry must collaborate if it is to move forward on the issue.

When it comes to managing chemicals in the supply chain, Sean Cady, VP of product stewardship and sustainability at VF Corp, describes the "crazy complexity" of legal requirements, standards and certification schemes the company has to navigate.

VF apparel and footwear brands include The North Face, Timberland, Wrangler, Lee, Vans and Nautica, which are sold in over 150 countries.

"When we place an order we don't always know which country that product will be sold in, or the laws that product will have to comply with - so we aim to make a global product, a product we can sell anywhere in the world," Cady explains.

As far as the use of certain chemicals is concerned, there is a "hugely complex array of legal requirements" to comply with, including the REACH chemical standards in Europe, the Consumer Safety Products Commission (CSPC) in the US, and the GB national standard for product testing in China. On top of this, many US states have their own chemistry laws for apparel and footwear.

Layered on top of the legal issues are special focus areas around chemicals - including efforts to eliminate PVC, alkyl phenols and alkyl phenol ethoxylates (APs and APEOs), sensitising disperse dyes, N,N-Dimethylformamide (DMF), dimethylfumarate (DMFu), perfluorooctanesulfonic acid or perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), and bisphenol A (BPA).

And on top of these requirements are different certification schemes - including Oeko-Tex, GOTS and BlueSign standards - governing the use of chemicals and their discharge, in products.

"All these specific and complex issues don't necessarily line up," Cady points out. He adds: "From the point of view of a brand placing an order with a factory, how do we know which standards should apply to that product? And how do we know which are the right ones, not only for the environment but for our businesses?"

Strong standards
VF manages this "crazy complexity" by building its own strong standards, which its products must meet from the outset.

Its restricted substance list (RSL), for example, allows it to make products that can be sold in any country around the world, "knowing that not only does it meet the legal requirements but that product also meets the requirements to which our customers or consumers hold us accountable."

But that's just the first step, Cady says.

"When it comes to managing chemicals in our supply chain, the standards are only the beginning. We focus a lot of our time on management systems, the education of the people who make our products, agreements with the raw material vendors, education of the second and third tier suppliers, and collaboration with the chemical industry.

"But as a business with over 1000 first-tier suppliers, we have to validate our efforts, through factory audits, and testing of products and waste water."

Illustrating the complexity of the task, he notes that a North Face jacket has over 40 individual components - ranging from the fabric and lining to the zipper and stuffing - all of which come from different raw material suppliers and all of which contain a different array of chemicals.

Collaboration is key
It's a problem being played out at brands and retailers around the world, and Cady believes the industry needs to collaborate to try simplify the process and move forward on chemical management.

Issues include a lack of knowledge about chemical use at the factory level, RSLs that are confusing and difficult to read, and often hard to understand information from the chemical industry itself.

"The two ways ahead I would offer are continued close collaboration in the industry between the chemical suppliers and the brands, and the service providers and the labs, and the governments - all working towards harmonised standards.

"The second area is for chemical suppliers to provide clear information about what's in a drum of chemicals."

Not surprisingly Dr Gerhard Wolf, head of technical service Europe, performance chemicals for leather at BASF, believes the problem lies at another door.

"Neither the chemical industry or the manufacturer or the mills or the tannery are able to harmonise," he says, "because the pressure comes from the brands who create more and more specifications for different kinds of articles.

"And if we don't have harmonisation and agreement between the brands - and I don't see it in the future - of the specification, testing methods and limits, we will continue to face the same problems in the future."

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition's (SAC) Higg Index - which is being developed to measure sustainability and environmental impact across the supply chain - is seen as a key initiative in helping to bridge this divide.

The ultimate goal is a consumer-facing label for products, with Cady adding: "This label will communicate to consumers - and we hope they will put their purchasing decisions where we're putting our efforts."