By  on August 4, 2009

Textile and apparel manufacturers, facing increased pressure to develop and implement sustainability programs, got another prod last month when Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said it was creating an environmental labeling program to measure the social and ecological impact of the products it sells.

The influence of the world’s largest retailer is likely to extend beyond its own suppliers when it comes to sustainability efforts, according to participants in FiberCast, an online program last Friday hosted by the University of Delaware’s department of fashion and apparel studies.

“Whether you’re a supplier to Wal-Mart or not, the effect that they have ultimately has a trickle-down effect on everybody out there,” said Rick Horwitch, vice president of business development and marketing for Bureau Veritas, which specializes in quality, health, safety and environmental and social accountability.

Wal-Mart’s program will require all 100,000 of its suppliers to absorb the costs of the initiative and answer a 15-item questionnaire on energy and climate, material efficiency and natural resources. The results will be used to create a comprehensive sustainability index that Wal-Mart will make available for use by other brands and retailers.

Horwitch believes Wal-Mart is initially interested in gathering the more easily attainable information on its products, but he has heard from people within the company that the goal will be to eventually obtain detailed information on “every single solitary thing that’s going into the store.” Over the next two years, Horwitch believes suppliers, particularly those in Asia, will be ramping up their efforts to keep track of their overall environmental impact regardless of their business channel.

“I think the suppliers are getting far more attuned to this issue,” said Horwitch. “They’re starting to address some of the components of the issue.”

But simply defining sustainability will present a challenge to some suppliers as they attempt to strike a balance between economic, environmental and social issues. Huantian Cao, associate professor of fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware, shared his experience of growing up in China to illustrate how sustainability fails when all three issues aren’t considered equally. Cao said his family was given a fabric coupon each year that entitled them to 7 to 15 feet of fabric to be used for everything from clothing to curtains. As a result, garments were repaired and patched, and buttons were reused. While this translated into a lower environmental impact, consumer needs were not met.

Horwitch noted there are small things companies can do immediately to become more sustainable, including consulting the American Apparel & Footwear Association’s banned substances list or reducing the impact of packaging by using less of it or using biodegradeable materials.

Will Phillips, manager of corporate environmental strategy at Under Armour Inc., warned that the majority of consumers will not sacrifice quality for the sake of sustainability.

“There’s certainly a small section of the market where that consumer is willing to pay [more] or accept a little less of a product because it’s sustainable,” said Phillips. “The masses are unwilling to pay up or accept an inferior product.”

Phillips believes the most effective way of gaining traction on sustainability within a company is to present it in the same way as any other business initiative. Management must be able to see the parameters of the project, its goals, how those goals will be measured and who in the organization will have responsibility and accountability. Each division of the company also needs a “green driver” to take on projects. According to Phillips, sustainability programs usually get their start at the employee level.

“I would doubt that most of these start with a chief executive officer epiphany,” said Phillips. “Quite often it comes from somewhere in the company, a leadership group…but the ceo needs to really be on board.”

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