The sustainability field is often accused of spawning 'talking shops' and that is a tag no new initiative wants. The emphasis on its three clear goals, even in its earliest communications, underlines that the Sustainable Apparel Coalition is not intended to be a 'forum' for discussion but a coalition for action.

In many ways the launch of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) is an achievement in itself, given the differing profiles and positions of the companies and groups represented. However, seeing it as simply an exercise in uniting contrasting views would be rather limited.

Of its three clear goals, arguably the most critical is the establishment of an industry-wide index for measuring and evaluating apparel and footwear product sustainability. Indeed, SAC described this as its "first major project."

"The coalition has recognised that, as the old saying goes, you can't manage what you don't measure, so measurement is our focus," Rick Ridgeway, vice president of environmental programmes at Patagonia and chair of SAC, tells just-style. "And the index we are developing will do that with significant depth in all categories of impact across the entire value chain of products, including social and labour impacts."

The group members have been working informally together since early 2010, and SAC stated at its launch that it planned to begin beta-testing the initial version of an apparel and footwear sustainability index this year.

The Sustainable Apparel Index
SAC believes that a common approach for measuring and evaluating sustainability performance is essential for driving a "race to the top." The idea, SAC states, is that retailers and brands will be able to compare performance of upstream supply chain partners, and those partners will have a single standard for measuring and reporting performance to their downstream customers.

This in turn will help "drive improvements in energy, waste, water, and toxics in the supply chain and help reduce operating costs and risks." The Index would help to highlight opportunities for "pre-competitive collaboration" in order to improve performance, making investment in technological innovations more feasible.

Among the design principles laid down at its launch, SAC said the Index had to deliver value to companies, drive quantifiable improvement and behaviour change and be easy to use and understand for users.

In addition, it has to encourage industry to engage their supply chain in measurement, and pool primary data in order to update the industry average and "raise the bar." While it wants the Index to be "well-planned," it should be dynamic and able to be adjusted over time to reflect new methods.

Also, the Index has to be credible; employ a life cycle-based approach that focuses on priority hotspots and uses 100% transparent, widely agreed-upon, best available measurement methods. Critically, it would have to have a 100% transparent scoring algorithm and enable third-party verification of results.

The idea that the Index could eventually include a consumer-facing element, either in the form of a label or a score, appears to feature in the Coalition's long-term thinking. It said the measurement standard will serve "as a foundation for eventual reporting to consumers on the sustainability performance of the products they purchase."

However, it adds that in the short term the priority is to use the index to drive improvement and innovation, and that no timetable had been set for the development of a consumer-facing label. SAC said the focus would be on business-to-business decision-making at first, "with the expectation that consumer-facing scores will exist in the future."

Sustainable Apparel Index V1.0
SAC's provisional model for its Index is the Version 1.0 Sustainable Apparel Index which it has published on its website. SAC has been carrying out a stakeholder review, seeking input from "invited and interested entities" and said it envisaged being able to make the full details available by September.

"This initial version is a starting point that is expected to evolve and improve through the benefit of stakeholder review, pilot testing, and public comment," SAC said.

The Version 1.0 Apparel Index is primarily an indicator-based tool which "enables companies to evaluate material types, products, facilities and processes based on a range of environmental and social practices and product design choices."

Indicators span the entire apparel life cycle from materials, manufacturing, packaging and transportation to use and end of life.

Impact categories include energy and greenhouse gases (GHG); water quality; water use; chemistry/toxics; waste; land use; and air emissions, while social/labour indicators are included for the manufacturing stage of the lifecycle.

Environmental metrics and calculation methodologies have been incorporated for three of these impact categories, namely energy and GHG, water use and waste. The Index will evolve to include metrics and methodologies for additional impact areas, such as chemistry/toxics, SAC said, and metrics and methodologies will be updated over time as needed.

It also said the Index would evolve progressively to include more quantitative data specifically from supply chains, "to more accurately assess true environmental and social impact and deliver a truly comprehensive product footprint score."  In the same vein, SAC also intends to incorporate social/labour indicators for raw material production.

While it has welcomed the emphasis SAC is placing on measurement and benchmarking, Greenpeace stressed in its response to the Coalition's formation that clear targets should also be established. "Given the urgency and severity of the pollution problem in many textile producing countries, such as China, it is imperative that the Coalition moves quickly to establish clear and measurable targets," Greenpeace said. "These must include targets for the total elimination of hazardous chemicals, both in terms of discharges occurring throughout the supply chain, and in the products themselves."

With regard to social impacts, SAC's founding members are strongly committed to the inclusion of "robust, credible social/labour indicators" in the Index, and to expand and develop the scope of social/labour indicators over time. However, it said that the inclusion of indicators "will be staged so that additional depth and scope are included in each successive version of the Index."

SAC formed a social/labour working group to evaluate existing third-party standards and review company best practices, and draft a set of indicators. An initial draft set of indicators for labour practices in the manufacturing (cut/sew) stage has been developed, and will be revised through a "robust" stakeholder engagement process, SAC said, after which these indicators will be included in Version 1.0 of the Index.

The Working Group has also been briefed to explore "opportunities for collaboration" on specific social/labour initiatives beyond the inclusion of indicators in the Index.

Building on existing models
The Sustainable Apparel Index V1.0 has been based largely on the Outdoor Industry Association's Eco Index and Nike's Apparel Environmental Design Tool.

Indeed, SAC has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) "to support the shared goals of both organisations to create one robust, widely-accepted, universal tool for measuring sustainable products."

"The SAC tool brings together the work of the Eco Index and the Nike Environmental Design tool," says Amy Kleiner-Roberts, vice president for government affairs at the Outdoor Industry Association. "So I feel that the work of the Eco Index by the outdoor industry has been foundational to the process, and the collaboration between the outdoor industry and the SAC members continues under this new model. Much of the work the OIA continues to manage will feed into the SAC apparel tool."

Kleiner-Roberts adds: "There is strong potential to achieve gains in sustainability metrics that can only come through the power of collaboration."

NGO involvement is a key strength of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, and nowhere is this more the case than with regard to the Index. Indeed, the OIA index was itself created in collaboration with NGOs so to a degree the basic blueprint that SAC has employed has already benefited from NGO input.

Kleiner-Roberts believes continued NGO involvement will certainly help the development of the SAC index. "SAC extends the process the outdoor industry started with the collaborative development of the Eco Index," she says.

"The Eco Index was reviewed by a series of NGOs and academics assembled by CERES during the piloting and we received feedback and suggestions for improvements, and as a result we were able to implement some very strong changes. The NGO community and the expertise they bring to the table are critical to the building of these indexes."