Software that manages product design and fabrication data is a powerful business tool primed to be a sleeper hit for the “green” movement.
That’s the vision of Kevin Myette, director of research and development at Recreational Equipment Inc., a $1.2 billion outdoor retailer based in Kent, Wash. REI designers use product life cycle management software to evaluate a material’s durability, aesthetics, cost and numerous other attributes before deciding, for example, whether a new product will be constructed of organic cotton or polyester.
However, the system cannot incorporate environmental impact metrics such as biodegradability or sustainability because no such index exists for the apparel and footwear industry, Myette said. “Some [materials] choices are rapidly renewable,” he said, “and some of them take millions of years,” such as petroleum-based virgin polyester. Certain materials processing consumes lots of energy, releases toxins or generates waste. “This is an area that is not often looked at in great detail and it houses some of the biggest skeletons in the closet of how materials are processed,” he added.
With easy access to environmental impact data, to be weighed against traditional product attributes, designers could make environmentally responsible choices, he said. And the platform on which to do that, product life cycle management, has already proven successful for companies like REI.
The retailer’s PLM system, called Enovia MatrixOne from Dassault Systèmes of Suresnes, France, a suburb of Paris, streamlines development for its $280 million private label group, which has sales growth that outpaces REI overall, Myette said. The system helps reduce waste, errors and missed deadlines to speed new products to market. Myette believes it will soon help REI cut a month from the lab testing process through better management of information.
His only gripe is that PLM systems represent only part of the “cradle-to-grave” life cycle of a product. The total life cycle includes farming, processing and transport through consumer usage and disposal, and each stage exacts a price on the environment that ought to be considered, he said. He acknowledged the chicken-and-egg nature of his proposal, but said moves were already under way to incorporate environmental metrics into design decisions.
Myette applauded Timberland’s Green Index, which scores a product’s environmental impact just as FDA food labels disclose nutritional information. “Let’s take what Timberland started and improve upon it and do it together” as an industry, he said. If apparel and footwear companies can develop and adopt a standard set of credible eco-metrics, then it will behoove PLM technology vendors to build the needed functionality into their software, he said.