Inside the Sustainable Apparel Coalition

The story of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition begins with a letter designed to get the attention of even a busy CEO. At the top: the logos of Walmart and Patagonia. John Fleming, who was then Walmart’s chief merchandising officer, and Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia’s founder, signed the letter, which invited chief executives of some of the world’s biggest clothing companies–fierce competitors, ordinarily–to join together to develop an index to measure the environmental impact of their products.

Their pitch, in part, read like this:

Creating a single approach for measuring sustainability in the apparel sector will do much more than accelerate meaningful social and environmental change. Standardization will enable us to maximize sustainability benefits for all buyers without investing in multiple sustainability technologies and certification processes, and ultimately empower consumers to trust claims regarding sustainably sourced apparel.

Finally, as an industry, we will benefit from the unique opportunity to shape policy and create standards for measuring sustainability before government inevitably imposes one.

…The time is right and the need is great for the apparel sector to move forward now, without further delay, in unison, with strong partners like you.

It was a risky proposition. What if it turned out that a competing company had a better sustainability story to tell? Would consumers be given access to the index? NGOs? Regulators? Most big retailers knew that they had very little visibility deep into their supply chains. Did they really want to find out, for example, that a supplier to one of their suppliers, in a factory they had never visited in China or Vietnam, exploited workers or dumped pollution into a nearby river? Any meaningful index would require companies to ask tough questions and, eventually, face demands from others to share what they had learned.

The letter went out on October 1, 2o09. Less than three years later, despite those risks, the apparel industry has made major progress towards creating a global sustainability index, which will be known as the Higg Index, to measure and score products, factories and companies. A first version will be released today (July 26) by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the nonprofit group that developed the index. Its vision? Nothing less than  “an apparel and footwear industry that produces no unnecessary environmental harm and has a positive impact on the people and communities associated with its activities.” The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC)  hired an executive director, Jason Kibbey, in January, and today it has more than 60  members, representing brands, retailers and suppliers who together account for more than a third of the global apparel and footwear industry.

Consumers won’t see labels with scores attached to their T-shirts, dresses or sports jackets for years, but some companies are already using the tool to measure the energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, chemical use and waste of their factories around the world.

The coalition and the index mean to do more than drive incremental change, Jason Kibbey (left) told me when we spoke last week. “This is about industry transformation so everyone can benefit from reduced risk as well as efficiency,” he said.

How and why did Sustainable Apparel Coalition and the Higg Index  come together so quickly? To find out, I interviewed key players including Kibbey; Rick Ridgeway, the vice president of environmental initiatives at Patagonia and a member of the SAC’s board; Mary Fox, a former Walmart executive, who with Ridgeway got the coaliation going; Michelle Harvey of Environmental Defense Fund, a member of the group’s board; and  John Whalen, a principal at BluSkye, a boutique consulting firm that helped guide the process. This story shows what an industry can do when people get together, commit to a goal and set aside as best they can their personal and corporate agendas.

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Thoughts on being power-less

No one pays much attention to electricity.

Until we’re forced to go without it.

I’ve not blogged for a while because I’ve been intermittently without electricity–first, by design, for a couple of days last week, when I took a rafting and camping trip off the grid in northern California, and then after I returned home to Bethesda, where a summer storm that killed 22 people also left more than 1.8 million people without electricity in the mid-Atlantic states.

Being power-less does interesting things to people.

Before leaving on the rafting trip, I confess, I was uneasy about doing without a cell phone, Internet access, email, Twitter and baseball scores, not necessarily in that order. I try to turn off my computer on Saturdays, to observe the Jewish sabbath, but I rarely succeed. Even when traveling overseas, I try to check in at least once a day. On an ordinary day, I rarely go more than an hour without checking email. This is an addiction, plain and simple.

Once I got out on the middle fork of the American River, none of that mattered. (Well, I did think about my beloved Washington Nationals now and then.) I was traveling with a group of fun and interesting people, assembled by Jib Ellison of the BluSkye sustainability consulting firm. The rafting was enormous fun. I camped for the first time in more than 30 years. (The technology of tents has improved nicely since then.) We ate well, and marveled at the beauty of the Sierra Nevadas.

Being off the grid was liberating–and restorative.

As it happened, we talked some about electricity. This was a group of sustainability people, after all. David Crane, the ceo of NRG Energy, talked about how he’d like to see solar panel on the roofs of half of the homers in America, roughly 50 million in all, but lamented the fact that most people aren’t aware that the cost of solar has fallen dramatically, that you can lease panels rather than buy them and avoid the high upfront costs, and that in some states the owners of solar-powered homes can sell electricity back to the grid. Most people, we agreed, just turn on their TV or plug in their laptop without thinking about how they are powered.

That wasn’t the case, of course, after a powerful storm struck Washington, D.C., and its suburbs on Friday. Many people took the inconvenience in stride, especially those of us, like my wife and I, who were fortunate enough to be able to check into a hotel for a couple of nights. But others griped incessantly about Pepco, the local power company, and a few treated the power outage as a hardship, which, to be fair, it can for older people or small children which suffer from the heat.

Hundreds of people flocked to malls and coffee shops to feed their Internet habit, sometimes squabbling over outlets.

 

That there might be a connection (no pun intended) between their electricity usage and the extreme weather — particularly the sweltering heat that has enveloped the DC area — probably did not occur to many. Burning coal, which generates more than 40% of the electricity in the US, is the biggest single contributor to climate change.

In a very real sense, the storms that cause us to lose electricity are caused, in part, by the fact that we use electricity that’s produced by burning fossil fuels.

To be sure, it’s not possible to link any particular weather event to global warming. But according to the National Climatic Data Center, more than 16,300 daily high temperature records were broken through June this year in the U.S. Whew! For more on the relationship between climate change and extreme weather, check out this update on Heat Waves and Climate Change from a nonprofit group called Climate Communication.

Don’t blame Pepco, folks; blame us.

Being without power is, of course, a more than an inconvenience for many. It’s a way of life. An estimated 1.3 billion people, or about 20 percent of the world’s population, live without regular access to an on-off switch of any kind, according to the International Energy Agency. About 85% of people in rural sub-Saharan Africa, for example, have no electricity in their homes.

Their kids can’t study at night. And they can’t plug in at a neighborhood Starbucks.

Maybe instead of whining when we’re powerless, we should try to be grateful that we live in a country where the electricity is nearly always on. Be even more grateful when we have an opportunity to unplug. And give some thought to installing  solar panels on the roof.

When “green business” isn’t enough

Into my inbox every day come press releases about this company putting solar panels on a roof or that one making its fleet more efficient. These incremental steps are laudable but  also (1) boring (2) old  hat and, most importantly, (3) unlikely to get us the environmental change we need.

Transformational change, by contrast, usually requires entire industries or groups of industries to work together, often with NGOs, sometimes with government. That’s  been going on for years–Unilever and WWF organized fisheries, NGOs and companies to form the Marine Stewardship Council back in 1997 to promote sustainable fishing practices–but lately, there seem to me more of these cooperative but complicated efforts. That’s reason for optimism.

Last fall, for example, I attended a Starbucks “cup summit” at the MIT Media Lab where the company, with the help of business guru Peter Senge, brought together paper companies, NGOs, government officials and rivals like Green Mountain coffee to figure out how to design a system to eliminate waste from coffee cups. [See The Starbucks Cup Dilemma in Fast Company.] Now Alcoa, with the help of sustainability consultant BluSkye, leading a broad and even more ambitious effort to drive up recycling rates across the US.

Reclaiming (valuable) aluminum cans

To learn about the Alcoa initiative, I met last week  in San Francisco with Jib Ellison, the founder of BluSkye,  and talked by phone with Kevin Anton, Alcoa’s chief sustainability officer.

The problem, as they both described it, is simple: Between $1 billion and $2 billion worth of aluminum cans end up in landfills each year.

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