By  on October 10, 2007

Nobody escapes scorecarding anymore. Suppliers are graded on fill rates and delivery dates, contract factories on human rights compliance and technology providers on service levels.

Next up: cows.

No longer does their flatulence in the fields go unchecked at Timberland. Data on bovine methane gas output and dozens of other environmental byproducts of footwear production are now being fed into the company's product life cycle management, or PLM, software.

It's a decidedly new twist on PLM, which itself is relatively new to apparel and footwear. PLM helps speed product to market — sometimes 50 percent faster — by providing real-time access to data, timetables and targets so everyone can collaborate better. Timberland's approach will bring hard numbers on climate impact — so-called eco metrics — into product development for the first time.

"Designers and developers are hit up by a bunch of suppliers, saying, 'This is green. This is wonderful.' But we had no objective way to analyze how 'green' that story was," said Betsy Blaisdell, manager of environmental stewardship at Timberland.

PLM software usually contains data about colorfastness and water resistance as well as cost and availability, the properties a designer evaluates before choosing a material. Timberland is adding data about chemical pollutants, resource consumption and carbon emissions to its existing PLM program from PTC of Needham, Mass.

The idea is to balance traditional materials' cost and performance attributes with environmentally responsible choices. No industry standards exist for measuring climate impact of apparel and footwear production, so Timberland had to devise its own metrics.

Timberland started with its Green Index product labeling initiative; it's the metrics developed for this consumer awareness program that are now being added to PLM. Much in the way food labels detail nutritional value, the Green Index shows shoppers how shoes and boots rate, on a scale of zero to 10, based on their environmental footprints. To calculate rankings for each product, Timberland uses GaBi life cycle analysis software from Germany's PE International.

The Green Index program launched earlier this year and now 60 stockkeeping units carry the labeling, Blaisdell said. (No such index yet exists for apparel.) Timberland prints the information on shoes, boots and their boxes. Shoppers comparing two boots would see one boot is more "green" because it contains more recyclable material and releases fewer emissions and chemicals during production than another boot choice. It's like comparing nutrition labels on a box of Kashi with a box of Cocoa Puffs.The index applies only to Timberland products, but that could soon change as other companies look to adopt eco labeling.

"But this is the rub," added Kevin Myette, director of research and development at REI. "Timberland is great. They went it alone on this, but I recognize it doesn't make sense for us to go it alone." A better next step, he said, is for companies to collaborate on standards for measuring climate impact "so that we are all speaking the same language." This way, products could be compared across brands with one index much like the Energy Star rating on electronics and home appliances.

To that end, he and Timberland's Blaisdell founded the Outdoor Industry Association Eco Working Group this year. About 40 brands are now involved and will build on work done thus far, such as Nike's Considered line and more recent developments such as REI's Eco Sensitive Labeling and Patagonia's Footprint Chronicles, all of which aim to inform consumers about products' environmental impact.

"Bringing the industry together to do it in a standard way — where we are all measuring and reporting with similar metrics and similar methodology — will be good for the consumer to make an educated choice, versus each company going off on its own," said Jill Dumain, Patagonia's director of environmental analysis. Developing a system that is comprehensive — from raw materials extraction to end-of-life strategy — will not be easy, say Eco Working Group members.

"The other challenge is making something that is understandable and has meaning to the consumer, but is not so dumbed down that it means nothing," said Dave Knutson, minister of human resources and sustainability for Chaco Inc., a Paonia, Colo., footwear company.

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