You might have heard about the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) recently. The SAC was founded by an industry-wide group of leading apparel and footwear brand owners, retailers, manufacturers, non-governmental organizations, academic experts, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It is an organization that seeks to measure and reduce the environmental and social impacts of apparel and footwear products around the world.
Recently, the SAC released a tool for measuring product sustainability called the Higg Index, which is designed to measure sustainability across the entire supply chain. It offers the user three different modules: the brand module, the product module, and the facilities module. The brand module looks at how a company’s practices and policies could impact product sustainability (i.e. whether a company designs for durability, if they use restricted chemical substances, whether they have practices in place to reduce packaging). The product module examines sustainability by how the product is built, for example the impacts of using different materials and product coatings. Finally, the facilities module looks at energy, water and waste performance, as well as facility management. In the future, the SAC hopes to have each module of the framework populated by data from both inside the user’s company as well as from other stakeholders in the supply chain. In this way, the goal is to measure the environmental cost of the decisions being made up and down the value chain and have the entire industry learn from the data, and make better choices over time.
It took a year of field testing and piloting by many of the members involved to even get to a point where the SAC could release this first version. New Balance Athletic Shoe is one of the founding members of the SAC and we have seen firsthand how using measurement systems, such as this framework, have helped us to understand our opportunity areas, how to use less materials and generate less waste while still achieving the product performance we and our consumers want.
The SAC effort demonstrates some critical ingredients that I believe are needed for corporate responsibility initiatives to be successful:
- Look for collaboration. The issues being tackled are ones that no one brand could change alone – certainly not quickly. Many companies have addressed environmental challenges alone for many years now. We are coming to a point where we will make more progress together – across companies and across different industries – to truly address complex issues and improve how we manufacture products on this planet.
- Strive for continuous improvement. We all know how hard it is to not let an idea get beaten down in a meeting room because stakeholders are trying to make it perfect. Don’t let them. Strive for progress, continuous improvement and moving toward better. Don’t let striving for perfection, or fearing failure, lead to inaction. The SAC framework made much progress in a short amount of time because members were committed to taking action, learning quickly, and making real progress for the planet.
- Seek to corroborate. Real data and quantification just can’t be beat for making real progress. Whether you have seen it when preparing a CSR report or requesting data on a topic for the first time – real measurements beat anecdotal stories every time, at every level of the organization. The numbers may be a work in progress, but the fact that you are asking will always allow you to make more progress than if you don’t seek out the information.
Initiate with courage and believe that many things are possible. As we all know, some of our projects and initiatives will be wildly successfully and others won’t, or will take multiple tries. You need to try and learn from all. Who would have believed that so many industry leaders could agree to adhere to one framework and accept common definitions in order to make it possible for many stakeholders in our supply chain to participate in eco-indexing – from large global companies to small suppliers in developing companies? The SAC progress should give us all hope and courage to address some of our toughest issues head on.