Making Apparel Transparent: Companies Team Up to Measure Sustainability of Shoes, Clothes

Source: Levi's

By Marisa Greenwald (Green Marketing & Sustainability Practice, Grossman Marketing Group)

We have written often at Sustainable Ink about the importance of transparency, as well as the need to account for the environmental impact throughout a product’s lifecycle.  With that in mind, we are pleased to see a positive step taken by some well-known corporations.

At next month’s Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City, retailers will receive a new tool to help them pursue their sustainability goals.   A group of about 100 retailers and manufacturers, including Nike, Levi Strauss, and Target, have joined forces to develop software that makers of apparel and shoes can use to measure the environmental impact of their products and assign to each an “eco-value” similar to the Energy Star rating of appliances.

Known as the “Eco Index,” this software tool works by posing a series of questions to companies on their environmental and labor practices, including some questions directed towards the companies’ suppliers.  The software then assigns a score that represents a percentage of a perfect score.  The goal of the Eco Index is to showcase competing items in retail settings with various “eco-value” scores so consumers can easily factor sustainability considerations into their purchase decisions.  Firms like Timberland and Patagonia have publicly expressed their desire to move the conversation forward and gain consensus among similar companies so that an effective and meaningful eco index program can be implemented.

With the heavy use of chemicals and crude oil to produce and ship these items, apparel production takes a heavy environmental toll that warrants accountability.  While many consumers are increasingly motivated by sustainability concerns, it is often difficult for them to understand the environmental consequences involved in producing many of their favorite products.  If companies begin to report the environmental impact to create their products, and consumers react by choosing certain items over others on environmental grounds, companies may become even more motivated to improve their sustainability efforts.

For more information about the Eco Index, check out this article from The Wall Street Journal or this recently featured piece in Fast Company.

An inside look at the greening of Harvard Business School

HBS Green TeamI’m pleased to include a guest post from Katharine Randel, who is a staff member of the Marketing Unit at Harvard Business School, as well as a member of the school’s Green Team.  I met Kathy earlier this year when I gave a presentation on green marketing and green business issues to the HBS Green Team (HBS is a client of our firm), and I was struck by her passion for and knowledge about sustainability issues.

I invited her to write an article on the work that the HBS Green Team is doing to help reduce the carbon footprint of the school, and I’m excited to feature her report below.

****

By Katharine Randel

When I began working at Harvard Business School several years ago, there was no paper recycling program.  Dismayed at how much paper I was putting in the trash every day, I enthusiastically joined a group of MBA students spearheading an effort to bring paper recycling to campus as soon as I learned of their work.  A few months later, recycling bins began appearing around campus, and today all offices have them.  In the years following, several sustainability practices were added to the HBS campus (for example, solar panels were added to the roof of the gym); but as an administrative employee supporting faculty, I was not involved…until recently.

A few years ago, Meghan Duggan was hired as assistant director of mechanical, electrical, plumbing and sustainability projects.  One of Meghan’s initiatives was to start an HBS Green Team of employees across all departments whose mission it is to establish a sense of environmental awareness throughout the HBS community.  The goal of the Green Team is to effect a change in behavior among faculty and staff that leads to a reduction in water and energy consumption and waste generation.  In January, I became the Green Team representative for a building of 250 faculty and staff.

This winter the Green Team held an energy competition in which ten office buildings on campus competed to reduce their energy consumption from the same time period the year prior.  This year the overall campus reduction was 24,880 kWh for one month.  The estimated monthly campus savings was $3,732 with an approximate reduction of 10.45 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.   Ten-and-a-half metric tons is the equivalent of CO2 emissions from 1,186 gallons of gasoline consumed.   If HBS faculty and staff maintained their energy-saving behavior for the rest of the year, we could save $44,784 and reduce CO2 emissions by 125.40 metric tons.

But the numerical results are only part of the story.  Another goal of the competition was to raise awareness and educate faculty and staff about sustainable behaviors.  In my building the competition has been surprisingly successful.  Since the competition, more than 20 faculty and staff have offered suggestions for ways HBS could reduce its energy consumption.  I circulate suggested behavioral changes back to the building inhabitants and contact various departments to follow up on suggestions.  When people see me in the hall they now tell me the latest steps they’ve taken, confess their inaction, or tease me (one of my coworkers turned out the lights in the copy room — knowing I was in the room — to “conserve energy”).  I am thrilled; every conversation and email tells me faculty and staff are more aware and the efforts of the Green Team are making a difference.

To learn more about Harvard Business School and Harvard University’s efforts towards environmental sustainability please see the following websites:  HBS Business & Environment and Harvard Operations Services Sustainability.

—-
Katharine Randel is the Unit Coordinator for the Marketing Unit at Harvard Business School. In that role she collaborates with faculty to create strategies and programs that foster the unit’s cohesion and purpose.  She has been passionate about improving the health of our natural environment since reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in seventh grade. In addition to her HBS Green Team activities she has studied environmental management at Harvard Extension School and has been composting and growing organic fruit and vegetables for 19 years.

News roundup – it’s about the wind

As I have written in the past, renewable energy is critical to our nation’s future – not only from a carbon emissions perspective but also for national security reasons.

My firm’s adoption of and support for renewable energy (we offset 100% of our energy with Green-e certified wind power through Renewable Choice, the firm that both Whole Foods and Burt’s Bees work with to offset their energy usage) has enabled us to offer products and services to our clients that have helped them support the environment, without adding any extra cost to their respective bottom lines.  Because my firm made the commitment more than two years ago to absorb the additional cost of these wind power credits, we have been able to grow our business in turbulent times and attract new and progressive clients.

I am pleased to share two exciting news pieces:

  1. A PDF of an article published last month by the American Marketing Association’s Marketing News magazine (a live link is not yet available).  The staff collected a range of good and bad marketing campaigns from 2008 and asked various marketing professionals to chime in.  They asked me to comment on the marketing of T. Boone Pickens’ wind power initiative (which is now on hold due to economic concerns) – the news brief is on page 1 of the attachment.
  2. An article in The Somerville News (a newspaper in my company’s home market) about recent successes my family firm has had as a result of our green initiatives (one correction I need to make is that the reporter spoke with my brother, David, but refers to him as Steve, who is my father and president of the company).

In this increasingly difficult business climate, I can certainly attest to the importance of corporate sustainability and social responsibility programs as a means of differentiation from one’s competition (not to mention the right thing to do!).  Although organizations are looking harder for lower prices than they have ever done before, they are also very much interested in working with a partner who they respect and can learn from.  If your company does not have sustainability initiatives in place now, I implore you to start thinking about them.  Not only can they help you generate interest from prospective clients, but they can also help you save money (on energy, water, etc) – which is now more important than ever.

Sustainability, and why it matters now

What it means

Sustainability means assuring the long-term survival of our planet by conserving and caring for its resources rather than depleting or permanently damaging them. Our growing awareness of the effects of climate change and deforestation makes sustainability and environmental stewardship everyone’s concern today.

Why it matters

For companies, sustainability and profitability go hand-in-hand. A commitment to environmental sustainability makes for good corporate citizenship, which improves a company’s relationship with customers, investors, regulators, neighbors and suppliers. The alternative to environmental sustainability is no longer tolerable. Sustainability is not only good for the earth and its people; it’s increasingly connected to building bottom lines and improving shareholder value.