Open-Sourcing Sustainability in Apparel

, March 17, 2017

By now the room is stuffed full with slim down jackets and preppy threads as the latecomers adopt their favorite squatting poses with cerebral calm. For on this dark evening in November 2011, an audience has gathered in Stanford’s Cemex Auditorium for something controversial, a presentation from a speaker whose own version of a MBA declines “Management By Absence”.

Such an outlandish protocol could easily be mocked in these parts, if only it didn’t also underscore one of California’s trending success stories. So in this moment, the audience waits to hear the tale of Yvon Chouinard and how a dirtbag climber could run apparel company Patagonia while sharing a mission with a committed member of big corp America.

Chouinard’s career spans a period of dynamic change for the United States, from wild expressions of counterculture in the 1960’s to the broad conformism that came to define the final moments of the millennium. So in a way it was the ultimate confirmation of Patagonia’s authenticity when Chouinard received a strange memo at the end of 2010, direct from the highest level of US retail.

By this point the company were already leagues ahead of its competitors in eliminating unnecessary resource extraction and unfair labor practices right through its supply chain, but it was still a modest brand in terms of revenue and reach. But it’s credential in corporate responsibility were standout and o when Walmart wanted to rally apparel brands to form a coalition around a common standard for supply chain transparency, Patagonia got the call and a request co-sign a letter to send out to the industry.

With Patagonia delivering all the necessary credentials, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) was soon formed by an impressive group of 30 brands, representing over 60% of the US apparel and footwear in terms of sales. Right from the start, Nike, Levi’s and H&M fastened themselves to a pledge to create a set of criteria that would measure the social and environmental impact of their product lifecycle. Initially, the brands agreed to adopt principles from the Outdoor Industry Association’s Eco Index and Nike’s Materials Sustainability Index until a custom ‘Higg Index’ could be built and tested.

New measures

There’s no doubting that the rise of conscious consumerism has piqued the interests of marketers, now qualified to subscribe their companies to SAC principles and put pressure on designers to use fabrics and treatment processes that met some ethical conclusion. Even so, the greatest potential and foremost challenge for the apparel industry lies in its willingness to align on a shared language for sustainability and go beyond consumer expectations without increasing cost. Taking this open-source approach would sweep away centuries of precedent around the proprietary nature of supplier relationships, the who and the how of the end-product, but would fundamentally empower consumers to make ethical choices in confidence.

At the end of 2015, SAC launched their European SME Pilot Project to introduce new brands to their now developed Higg Index. After four years of being lauded by the biggest brands, SAC hadn’t been able to shift the needle among SME’s who faced different capacity issues, while maintaining a vested interest in adopting alternative auditing methods. To a greater extent, these efforts to find an independent route are entirely justified. Why should big brands benefit from knowledge of pioneering brands? Why should large companies get value from the speed-of-play of smaller players who have taken risks to adopt their own language for sustainability?

The hope is that companies will be able to decouple branded efforts from the scientific priority of infrastructure and processes. A common language and single way to describe a manufacturing module, ultimately, gives the industry as a whole the best chance of creating a consistent set of standards, objective benchmarks that provide a one-sized rule of thumb. Tragedies like the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh in 2013, in which 1,134 garment workers lost their lives, concern complex systems that fall outside the control of a single brand, especially when a supplier is being used for a small portion of total inventory.

According to Janet Mensink, SAC’s project director, one measure is for the results of audits to be shared among brands using similar facilities, an approach that would increase the frequency and rigour of inspections. Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production (WRAP) and auditing firms Bureau Veritas and SGS are also in agreement with this approach. These are big players who have the ability to add substantial resources towards inspection and reporting down the chain from supplier to consumer.

Aligning across linguistic barriers, sizes of company and different markets remains the core objective of collaborations. Another organization in this space is the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), who are aware of the ground that needs to be covered to make their Clean by Design initiative more widely used. Focusing on multinational brands and connecting with more factories while maintaining a comprehensive onboarding process is their formula for 2016. NRDC are also set on sorting data and reports to provide actionable information and stories that different brands can relate to, and even hope to create a distance learning platform in the model of the Khan Academy.

The upside

Responsible sourcing isn’t all about reducing the environmental and social degradation caused by being an apparel business. There’s also opportunity in layering sophistication into processes that look increasingly Dickensian when compared with the status quo just ten years ago. At a summit in Osaka in 2015, SAC member-suppliers commented on how the Higg Index provided them with the means to communicate the business benefit of closer scrutiny to top management. Interviewed by SAC, attendees Nikhi Hirdaramani (Hirdaramani), Dhawal Mane (Pratibha Syntex), Abhishek Bansal (Arvind Limited) are dynamic professionals representing highly advanced suppliers. Meanwhile, Italy’s ECONYL are active on Medium, publishing ways it has worked with brands to reintroduce waste materials into their supply chain and in other cases, how they managed to divert excess hot water from a manufacturing plant to help a nearby water park reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by two million kilograms per year. The internet provides facilities with the means of promoting their services as brands in themselves, creating a front to craft but at scale.

For consumer-facing brands, the opportunity to take a leadership stance while refreshing their reputation is another new frontier. NRDC member Kering Group, now home to surfing champion Kelly Slater’s Outerknown, published an extensive document in 2013 outlining a pilot run with PUMA to map its entire supply chain, then collect and evaluate vital data (I’ve emailed them to find out if they updated in 2015). The document goes well beyond a customer marketing campaign and provides a manifesto for change that’s inspiring and relevant to most competitors. More recently, Levi’s released a enlightening document, Open Source: Water Innovation, for World Water Day 2016, making its Water

As sustainable apparel hones in on a consensus, tech solutions position themselves to help manage workflow. London-based Provenance are interested in the introduction of blockchain and surfacing the story of a individual product to the end-consumer. Meanwhile Sourcemap vouch for intelligent supply chain visibility to keep designers in touch with the entire possibility and impact of what they do. If software can reduce overheads for brands, both in terms of cost and around the toil of regular inspection, auditing tasks could play a more seamless role through the supply chain. Ultimately the flexibility of these tools will be essential, to accommodate for fluid viewpoints with ever-advancing manufacturing techniques and materials research.

During his presentation, Chouinard made it clear that manufacturing apparel isn’t sustainable — the rate of extraction is too great even for simple garments. But what becomes most obvious when listening to Chouinard is that the impact of taking ethical decisions has durable business value. In coming to terms with this dilemma — of the negative effect of Patagonia’s manufacturing component and its pledges to environmental conservation — Patagonia admits that the same models of down jackets worn by the audience also fall on the shoulders of SUV drivers in New York. Still, collaboration promises at least to curb environmental impact of production and perhaps prompt conversation around reducing the amount of stuff we buy.

For more on what Patagonia is doing in sustainable apparel, visit