By  on March 1, 2011

Sustainability is on the road to standardization.

After years of largely going it alone and producing a patchwork of overlapping efforts to reduce fashion’s social and environmental footprint, a group of major brands, nonprofit groups and the Environmental Protection Agency have banded together to form the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.

Next month, the coalition, which was spearheaded by Patagonia and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., will begin testing the next generation of an index that measures the sustainability of apparel and footwear. That index is expected to evolve into a label or hangtag that would help shoppers understand the ramifications of their apparel or footwear purchases, from carbon emissions and water and chemical usage to conditions in factories.

Among the group’s 32 other founding members are Gap Inc., VF Corp., Hennes & Mauritz, Levi Strauss & Co., Adidas AG, Nike Inc., Duke University, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Outdoor Industry Association.

Members of the coalition pay dues, which are used to coordinate efforts and hire consultants. The group has decided to stay with an informal structure for now, with working groups tackling various topics and reporting back to the whole coalition at quarterly meetings.

The index is based on the Outdoor Industry Association’s Eco Index and Nike’s Apparel Environmental Design Tool and is intended to create value for businesses and lessen the industry’s social and environmental impact. It is also designed to promote continuing improvement by companies, account for a product’s entire life cycle and allow for third-party verification.

Rick Ridgeway, chair of the coalition and vice president of Patagonia’s environmental programs, described the group as “pre-competitive.”

“Everybody comes into the room committed to working together to develop this tool, but not jockeying for any position…there’s no other business to be discussed,” he said.

The group has been working together since early last year mixing and matching various sustainability programs.

Ridgeway said the index could become an eco label that will let shoppers use smartphones in stores to learn everything about a product’s sustainability. “If they want to know what the greenhouse gas emissions are for this shirt, they can find out about it,” he said.

New members of the coalition will be vetted closely given the stakes involved.

“If we can get a tool created in this group that has grown enough to have a gravitational pull in this sector, then we have a good shot of getting the whole sector to line up behind it,” Ridgeway said. “We don’t want anybody who is going to try to dumb this thing down and sabotage it in any way.”

Companies often need a nudge to make social and environmental causes a focus, but Ridgeway said there are plenty of reasons to go green.

He said companies in the coalition could lower sourcing costs, manage risk, protect their reputations, get ahead of changes in regulations and help build stronger societies, which lead to stronger markets.

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