By  on September 15, 2008

ATLANTA — Just what is green?

With dozens of companies jumping on the green bandwagon, consumers have become concerned about what’s green and what’s not. The LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) consumer, a market segment concerned with fitness and the environment, is particularly skeptical. As Dina Dunn, international communications manager of Blink, said last month at FabricLink’s seminar Making Sense of Supply Chain Certification, “People are not doing a great job of defining the term green or they’re defining it in different ways. Plus there’s greenwashing (false claims of sustainability), so the consumer isn’t sure what’s going on.”

Companies that want to prove their green credentials are turning to third-party certification. According to the Web site, there are 38 certifiers alone for textiles including Oeko-Tex, which was established in 1992. The Oeko-Tex “Standard 100” label stands for textile confidence and for textiles tested for harmful substances in the supply chain. Brands associated with Oeko-Tex include Meyer Trousers and DOW XLA.

Other newer certifiers have entered the business, including: Bluesign Technologies, introduced at the World Expo 2000; GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), created by an international group of organic textile organizations in 2002; and Zque, created last year by the New Zealand Merino Co., as a traceable and accredited value chain ensuring high-quality New Zealand merino wool while meeting environmental, social and economic sustainability and animal welfare criteria. It was launched at the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in January 2008.

According to Larry Harrison, vice-president of business development for Nüwa Textiles, the outdoors industry has “a dirty little secret,” namely, “mounds” of polyester and nylon. Nüwa, a 38-year-old textile company (named after a Chinese goddess known as a repairer or creator), specializes in producing synthetic fabrics, including recycled polyester, in China and Taiwan. It is Oeko-Tex certified and is waiting to be Bluesign certified. “We work hard with the manufacturers of our products to deliver a cleaner production process,” Harrison said. “The 3-R mantra (reuse/recycle/reduce) guides us.”

Currently Nüwa, which produces more than 20 million yards of fabric each month, is reusing 70 percent of the water at its three fabric mills, which have sophisticated recycling systems. Harrison said the dyeing and finishing facility in Taiwan has lowered its water usage by 35 percent and reduced the amount of dyestuffs it uses. The dyeing and finishing operation will also soon be using a coal gasification plant to supply its energy needs in a much cleaner way, which has nearly zero emissions.

Eco-friendly operations are paying off for Nüwa financially too. “We’re increasing our margins with the savings, as well as contributing to the greater good,” Harrison said. “Our hope is that we find extraordinary success and everyone else in textiles says, ‘Hey, we need to do that too.’” However, he added, “you can’t be green overnight. It will take our industry a long time to clean up and we should applaud ourselves at every step.”

Chris Parkes, national sales director at Concept III International, which works with textile companies in the development, sourcing and production of fabric-based finished products, is Bluesign certified. “We decided to move forward with Bluesign because they’ll work with us on all parts of our factories—water, energy, chemicals,” Parkes said. Bluesign also has helped Concept III’s companies control costs without sacrificing quality, he added.

Representatives from Bluesign undertake a thorough screening of facilities. “Every process of the facility is exposed,” Parkes said, “and all information is sent to the [Bluesign] headquarters in Switzerland for analysis.” Bluesign representatives return to the facility three or four weeks later to answer questions, make calculations for improvement, then provide recommendations and a to-do list. Bluesign has ratings of black (bad), gray (not great but using the best available technology) and blue (fine). Areas judged black must be replaced with gray or blue components. Once the changes are made, the facility is retested, and a screening follow-up is done once every two to three years.

Zque is the first traceable standard for wool, with criteria set around animal welfare, environmental, economic and social sustainability, and the ability to trace, said Mark Bryden, president of SmartWool. Beginning this fall they are educating companies and consumers about Zque with information on its Web site, plus stickers placed on products and point-of-sale fixtures at retail. Bryden said using Zque accreditation adds around 2 to 5 percent to the cost of a product. “We’re doing it because it’s good business and it’s the right thing to do,” he said, acknowledging that consumers buy for purpose and functionality first, followed by color and styling cues, then third-party certification or corporate practices.

Members of the outdoors industry are doing more to decrease their impact on the environment in profitable ways that can also be simply and credibly explained to the consumer. The OIA (Outdoors Industry Association) Eco Working Group, started in January 2007, is comprised of 40 to 60 companies addressing the environmental impact of products and developing an index to measure this impact along the supply chain. Members include REI, Patagonia, Mountain Equipment Co-op, Marmot, Sierra Designs, Nike, The North Face and Timberland. Kevin Myette, director of product integrity at REI, is chair of the executive committee. The catalyst for establishing the group was Timberland’s Green Index, which the Eco Group is using as a model in working toward a more comprehensive index. Myette also likes the Nike Considered initiative for footwear.

“We’re not interested in adding to the confusion but in cutting through that and coming up with credible tools so companies will be more mindful of the impact they’re having when they create a product,” Myette said. “And there’s a strong business case for everything from not greenwashing to clear economic benefit, like saving money and doing things that are more profitable.” Companies can then pass on to the consumer how their product impacts the environment in a simple and meaningful way.

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