Becoming Bluesign: Social and Environmental Supply Chain

, July 9, 2017

Tradeshows in the outdoors industry contain an odd mix. On the one hand, you have wonderfully revered companies flaunting their latest products, while on the other, lesser known fabric manufacturers make up a collection of booths busy with stuff you can’t actually put on. Predominately from China and Taiwan, these suppliers send a small handful of people to Munich or Friedrichshafen, to promote their range of zips or a spread of baselayer fabrics. Compared with the curated presentation from apparel brands who offer a near-retail experience, the booth of a supplier looks like a chaotic mess.

At 2017’s ISPO tradeshow in Munich, I dropped into the booth of supplier Grand Textile Co. to speak with Gary Lu, their assistant director. Whereas most supplier booths are void of any recognizable logo or token, Grand Textile clearly displayed the logo of Swiss-based chemicals authority, the bluesign system.

In an effort to improve the transparency of apparel brands and provide a trusted way for suppliers to leap into building a more responsible supply chain, the bluesign system provides a framework of social and material inputs for the factories to follow. If interested, suppliers can submit their factory to bluesign for audit and enter multi-year contracts to use their tools, receive annual inspection and so maintain their status as an authorized supplier.

In turn, suppliers are then able to speak with client designers and textile experts with the confidence of third-party (Swiss) recognition. Their compatibility with market trends toward more conscientious purchasing is reinforced by bluesign’s independent status and broad footprint as a connecting sytem. Suppliers also have access to a suite of updated bluesign web applications, extending the outsourcing theme while providing an outside party to provide the touchpoint for input management within the system.

As a bluesign-approved supplier, Lu doesn’t consider the application process to be too painful. Instead, the disciplined and stringent rules to do with waste water and chemical use become an important system to work within once approval is granted. Updating material inputs isn’t as complicated as changing perceptions in social compliance; Lu admits that in South-East Asia, labor law has historically had a bad track record. Meeting the social criteria can also prompt a change in salary structure and company policy, which can have repercussions on existing relations between employees and managers. Of course employees must also be onboard with the updates and understand why they are competitive strengths.

For some context: Grand Textile has worked with Bluesign for four years. It took them less than one year to go through the full audit, at a point when their annual turnover was $30m. Their application process was fairly efficient because they had been a supplier to adidas before interacting with bluesign, which meant they had already been monitored closely for multiple years.

One of the more recent complications has come in the way that apparel brands display their products as bluesign-approved. For this to be valid, they need all materials within the whole garment to be compliant, including the tiny stuff like buttons, zippers, and lamination.

Lu highlights a further, more subtle point to do with the deviation from the bluesign’s mission: suppliers placing bluesign-approved fabrics at the premium end of their inventory, in terms of pricing. For Lu, suppliers should see bluesign as a baseline system to work through, not try to leverage.

Have comments or insights, email Will Ross (