Fostering a Responsible Fashion Industry: The Sustainable Apparel Coalition

clothing pile

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition is bringing together apparel companies worldwide in order to form a responsible fashion industry for the future. 

Although sustainable, eco and ethical fashion have all become movements that most people are familiar with, does the majority of the world’s population have a green wardrobe? No. That’s where the Sustainable Apparel Coalition has stepped in to begin turning things around. Focused on creating  “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”, is the SAC mission states.  This non-profit organization is a collaboration with an impressive roster of worldwide apparel and footwear labels, making headway for a world where the clothes we wear give back to the Earth instead of destroying it.

Like it or not, brands like Nike, Adidas, JC Penney, H&M dominate a large percentage of closets, and aren’t going to disappear anytime soon. These large companies have immense power over the consumer market, and thus also have an immense impact on the apparel manufacturing process. They have the ability to change the current apparel industry into a sustainable one, but only if we as consumers ask them to. No matter how much industry power large companies may wield, consumer power will always trump it, because profit by consumption is the only incentive for production. The SAC is playing a part in fostering a transition to sustainability with their Higg Index, a tool for measuring the environmental and social performance of apparel products. This Index comprises questions that assign a sustainability score to each brand, accounting for factors such as harshness of chemicals used and waste created by production and transportation.

Since launching in 2012, the SAC has managed to bring apparel brands, retailers, suppliers and NGOs involved in the apparel and fashion industries to the Coalition. A list of more than 80 members, boasting names like Burberry, PPR Luxury Group (Stella McCartney, Gucci, Alexander McQueen, etc.) , VF Corporation (Timberland, North Face, Lee, Wrangler, etc.), H&M, Nike, REI, Patagonia, Gap, Target, Walmart and a number of fabric manufacturers are using the Higg Index to develop and tailor sustainable products that meet their individual business models, providing the SAC with feedback for the refinement of the tool.

The Higg Index allows companies to internally evaluate their materials, facilities, processes and end products based on varying environmental and product design choices. This Index is based on a life-cycle assessment from the sourcing of materials to manufacturing, packaging, transportation and final use of the garment. The tool is open-source, freely available on SAC’s website, allowing any type of apparel company to identify its rating for environmental responsibility and pinpoint specific areas of development. The tool also aims to improve the business value of companies by uncovering costly inefficiencies and heavy pollution-causing activities. For example, who knew that manufacturing plaid shirts results in half the fabric being wasted, just to get the correct pattern? Better design and pattern cutting techniques would be a realistic, cost efficient and environmentally friendly solution.

Currently the scores and feedback obtained through the Index are not to be disclosed to the public by any member or label using the tool, as the SAC is still in the process of validating measurements. Tim Gnatek of the SAC says, “We need to continue to develop the tool so that we are more transparent and responsible about the shared data. The scores will remain internal until they can be completely reliable, because we want the shared information to be meaningful.” Although some companies might see the results of the index as a marketing tool, the information imparted through them will have the ability to spur positive change. As Gnatek affirms, “the real point is for companies to be able to assess their impact and make decisions according to it. Right now companies can do that behind closed doors, excluding marketing strategies, in order to really identify areas of development and inform the direction of future progress.”

Inclusion of and collaboration with third parties will allow the SAC to develop credible measurements that are backed up by both industry insiders and outsiders. A new, online version of the tool is set to come out in the Fall of 2013, and will incorporate more measurements for social and labor impacts. Gnatek says public release of scores on the Higg Index is still a few years away, but could result in information shared on clothing tags, company websites or even apps. With global and widespread interest from apparel companies, the information provided by the Index will cause a significant change in the processes of the apparel industry. As transparency becomes a business strategy, brands will become much more active in connecting the dots within their supply chains, in turn offering more information to consumers that already have a desire to become more educated about responsible industry practices.

The efforts and mission of the SAC are definitely laudable, although a key point still looms in the background, casting a large shadow over all modern industries. The current business model is fundamentally flawed in its sole focus on profit over anything else. If resource protection, social well-being and mutually respectful, intelligent cultural development are not placed above profit, the apparel industry, as well as many other industries, will continue destructive production processes and spurring of obsolescent consumption behaviors. The sooner we demand industries that are built on information exchange and true respect for  everything with which we cohabit this Earth, the sooner we’ll spur these companies into genuinely progressive responses.

Image: Dov Charney