By  on July 3, 2007

NEW YORK — The American Apparel & Footwear Association unveiled its first restricted substances list during its Environmental Issues Seminar here last week.

"AAFA continues to proactively take a leadership role in ensuring that textile, apparel and footwear firms have the resources to learn about and put in place a sound chemical management system," Kevin Burke, president and chief executive officer of the AAFA, said in a statement. "This new, annual effort will become an invaluable resource for everyone in the industries."

Companies such as Levi Strauss & Co. and Nike Inc. have had restricted substances lists, or RSLs — which inform manufacturers what chemicals can be used in small amounts or not used at all — for more than seven years. However, the lists, like other documents and policies that seek to define corporate responsibility, can vary by company. The AAFA spent two years developing its RSL, adding chemicals and substances based on federal regulations from the world's developed countries. The list is expected to be updated in coming years to include chemicals that may not be regulated by governments but are still restricted in their use by the industry.

John Eapen, vice president of environmental health and safety for yarn manufacturer American & Efird, opened the conference by urging attendees to use the list to make improvements in their operations.

"Our goal is to give you all the information to go back to your company and implement your own RSL," said Eapen.

Sean Cady, a senior manager for environment, health and safety for Levi Strauss, said an RSL provided a range of benefits to companies. By prohibiting or restricting chemicals used in production, a company can assure the safety of the product being sold.

"Nobody in here wants our products to harm the consumer," said Cady. "That's what an RSL is."

The RSL can give employees of the company and consumers confidence in the product, help prevent organizations such as Greenpeace from targeting a company, and allow firms to quickly respond with evidence to counter any accusations.

Cady acknowledged the apparel industry, and the denim industry in particular, was chemically intensive. Bleach, soap, enzymes, resins and dyes are commonly used. Brand owners, retailers and manufacturers need to consider the impact of each of those substances."Think about this: If you use a chemical, where does it end up?" asked Cady. There are only three answers — on the garment, in the air or in the water. "We have to think holistically around chemical management," said Cady.

Tommy Thompson, manager of environmental health and property conservation for Hanesbrands, said implementing an RSL could be a difficult transition for employees unaccustomed to considering such issues. When Thompson instituted a policy that required all substances used in production to be cleared with him first, he didn't always get a warm reception.

"Any restrictions you try to put on [product developers'] processes, they are going to view as a barrier to doing their jobs," warned Thompson. The challenge comes in educating the company about the importance of having the RSL. At companies the size of Hanesbrands, that is a particularly daunting task.

"We have more facilities than I can name in more countries than I can possibly name," said Thompson.

The cost of not having the RSL can be considerable. Andy Chen, director of RSL and Asia communications for Nike, discussed several incidents involving the company's products that dealt directly with restricted substances.

In one case during the last World Cup soccer tournament, the shiny outer coating of a Nike soccer ball was found to be "loaded" with cadmium, a banned substance. Because Nike had an RSL and testing in place, the activewear giant was able to catch it early. The company developed a new coating that didn't dramatically affect production costs. Ultimately, Nike spent an extra 900,000 euros, or approximately $1.2 million at current exchange, to make the product safe. Chen noted that had the balls made it to the public and been discovered by a non-governmental organization, the financial impact could have been exponentially larger.

"I can tell you this is a very risky issue because there are a lot of eyes watching," said Chen.

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