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Major Clothing Lines Launch Sustainable Apparel Coalition

Many of the world's biggest clothing manufacturers are banding together to measure and manage the environmental and social impacts that stain their industry.

Of all our possessions, clothing may seem largely benign in terms of environmental impact. Alas, it is not. From the water that goes into growing fibers to the fuel used to ship products to the working conditions in the factories and the waste that's left behind, our garb has a sometimes ugly backstory. In an effort to address, and clean up, this backstory, a number of major apparel companies, including VF Corp (The North Face, Wrangler, 7 For all Mankind and many other brands), Nike, New Balance, H&M and Patagonia, launched today the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.

photo of a clothesline with undergarments on it

Yep, one can make a compelling argument that the most sustainable pieces of new clothing are the ones that aren't made because, well, we really don't need a new wardrobe each season--as much that thick September issue of Vogue or Outside's gear guide tries to make us think otherwise. Still, it's good to see the apparel industry trying to lessen its impact.

The group's goals are to help manufacturers measure the harms linked to their products, using five categories: water use/quality; energy use/greenhouse gases; waste; chemicals/toxicity; social/labor. Last summer, the Outdoor Industry Association, through its Eco Working Group, released a beta version of the Eco Index, a tool by which apparel and gear makers could measure the environmental impacts created by their products. The tool quickly attracted the attention of many firms outside the outdoor industry. And it, along with Nike's Apparel Environmental Design Tool, serve as models upon which the Sustainable Apparel Coalition has built Version 1.0 of its Apparel Index. It plans to beta test this tool throughout the year.

The intent behind the Apparel Index is to create a tool that manufacuturers can use for internal efforts, toward designing, sourcing, shipping and recycling their apparel products with the environment in mind. However, a longer-term goal is to create a labelling system that consumers will be able to use in order to help guide their buying decisions.

The coalition is enlisting the help of academics and NGOs, including the Environmental Defense Fund, as well as the US EPA to serve as advisors and third-party verification partners on the project. It hopes to expand its membership, from the current 33 members to 40 different entities--including more footwear brands as well as logistics companies that play an integral part in the apparel supply chain--by June. By 2012, it hopes to have its governance and structure established enough to support an open membership so that more firms can join the effort.

Rick Ridgeway, chair of the coalition and vice president of environmental programs for Patagonia, said in a statement that the coalition is trying to "get in front of the growing need to measure and manage the environmental and social impacts of their products." The firms also hope that by binding together, they'll be able to share insights and drive innovations toward more sustainable materials and business practices.

But how will these companies balance these desires against the need to advance their own brands? That could be one of the more interesting elements to watch as the coalition builds out its Apparel Index and seeks to attain and retail the trust of sustainability-minded consumers.

Mary Catherine O'Connor
Mary Catherine O’Connor writes about the environment, adventure sports, and technology.

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Another way to update your wardrbe in an eco-frienly manner is to learn to sew. If you have the inclination, you can effectively become your the manufacturer of your own wardrobe, thereby cutting out labor costs altogether and reducing the impact of shipping (the fabric may have been shipped to the store, but it was not then sent overseas to be constructed into a garment and then returned to the U.S.). As a plus, you also get garments that fit better than those that have been mass-produced.

Other options that people seldom consider include having old clothes restyled, incorporating used fabrics into new creations or going to a second-hand store to experiment with wild and unconventional styles. That’s a lot greener than the Nike production model!

By GDiFonzo on Thu, March 10, 2011 at 4:56 pm

I applaud the Sustainable Apparel Coalition for the green-geared Apparel Index, but you’re right: “One can make a compelling argument that the most sustainable pieces of new clothing are the ones that aren’t made because, well, we really don’t need a new wardrobe each season.” And as Lupe implies, the greenest way to go is to buy products made close to home. Bottom line, as with anything, the key is knowledge:

By Meredith Simonds on Thu, March 10, 2011 at 3:42 pm

I agree, Lupe, especially about Nike. I think apparel companies should address human rights as a parellel concern with environmentalism. I want to follow this story and see whether it really is a step toward change or just complete greenwash.

By GDiFonzo on Tue, March 08, 2011 at 9:50 pm

That sounds like a very good idea,until reality sets in,we know that most of apparel is been manufactured overseas, in countries that have no regulations on enviroment or labor,even if they have a few things in the books,there isn’t ENFORCEMENT,especially in china,it is hipocrytical to for this companies,especially nike to pretend that they are social and enviromental conscience when they are going overseas for CHEAP LABOR!

By lupe orellana on Sun, March 06, 2011 at 10:52 am

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