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The Though Kitchen - Dedicated to Stirring the Pot

Between the Threads: Eco Index, the Nitty Gritty.

Posted by leighann | August 1st, 2011 | Filed under Environmental Change, Positive Change, Sustainability, Who We Are
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©Daniel Sharp

Last month in The Thought Kitchen, we sat down with Jamie Bainbridge, our Director of Textile Development and Sustainability, to get a behind-the-scenes look at the Eco Index—a collaborative effort to create an industry-wide standard in sustainability. This month, we’re taking a deeper dive into the nitty gritty details of this innovative tool and putting our Men’s Vice Blazer to the test. Find out what we learned and how it’s going to change the way we do business.

How It Works: The Cliffs Notes Version
Building a tool that assesses the environmental impact of thousands of products produced by hundreds of companies is challenging, and some might even say, downright impossible. That’s why the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) built the Eco Index as a three-tiered system, so that any company, no matter how small or large, can evaluate their business piece-by-piece.

All three levels—guidelines, indicators and metrics—allow companies to evaluate their products based on two crucial elements: lifecycle stages such as packaging, transportation and materials; and impact such as the use of waste, water and other resources.

The first level—guidelines—is merely a set of recommendations that companies can use to lessen their impact: use more recycled content, minimize packaging, institute end-of-life design policies, etc… The second level—indicators—gets a bit more technical and even incorporates a scoring system that allows companies to assign points (we’ll take a closer look at indicators when we evaluate the Vice Blazer). And finally, the third tier—metrics—requires lots of number crunching and accounting that assigns values to each indicator. Confusing? Yes. Effective? We’ll see.

To get a better grasp on the set-up, think of it like this: guidelines ask what am I doing?, indicators ask how am I doing?, and metrics ask how much am I doing? But despite their qualitative and quantitative differences, every level is designed with the same goal in mind: to increase the transparency of the supply chain and lower the environmental footprint.

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©Daniel Sharp

Sizing up the Vice Blazer: Materials and End of Life
So what does all of this mean for a company like Nau? To start, we can use the Eco Index indicators to evaluate each of our products. Take the Vice Blazer, for example. We picked three sample indicators to size up its environmental footprint and here’s what we learned:

1 Recycled Content
For this indicator, the Eco Index assigns points based on the percentage of recycled content that is used in the product (1 point for 10-24%, 2 points for 25-49%, etc…). But keep in mind, all scoring is merely an internal gauge of a company’s sustainability practices and, in no way, reflects a standardized ranking system (yet). Since the Vice Blazer is designed with 80% recycled polyester, we feel like we’re pulling our weight in this category. However, we still keep an eye on technology to see if more improvements can be made.

2 Renewable Content
In order to produce the premium quality of the fabric in the Vice Blazer, we added 20% certified organic cotton which reduces the use of pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals. It also gives recycled polyester the smooth, soft feel of cotton.

3 Designed for End of Life
We designed the Vice Blazer to be recycled at the end of its long life, including the labels which are composed of recycled polyester. However, there are two components that could be improved based on this indicator: the back zipper and the cotton content which are both unable to be recycled at this time.

Even though organic cotton is a renewable resource, it is considered a non-polyester “contaminant” and is, therefore, dissolved through the recycling process. In the end, we are throwing away 20% of the garment even though 80% is being recycled and reused.

This begs the question: do we sacrifice the soft quality of organic cotton to produce a completely100% recycled blazer? Or do we include cotton, a renewable resource to create a more premium garment that looks and feels better to the consumer?

These are the design and sustainability questions we face every day as a company dedicated to creating beautiful performance products that balance the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit. And with the launch of the Eco Index’s pilot program in September, these are the tough questions every apparel company will have to answer in creating more sustainable and transparent product and supply chains. However, one, lingering question remains: will it actually work?

Stay tuned: In part three of our three-part-series, we’ll explore the inaugural launch of the Eco Index pilot program and find out if it will actually live up to the hype.

10 Responses to “Between the Threads: Eco Index, the Nitty Gritty.”

  • August 2, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Malinda says

    you’re design dilemma re: org ctn vs pe is the same thing all designers who care need to confront. what about other sustainable fibers, i.e. hemp? what natural fiber is really cradle-to-cradle? what about the gazillion other fbcs developed? like crabbyester or whatever lenzing is calling it…;)

  • August 3, 2011 at 9:53 am | charles r says

    An interesting tale – but isn’t this a bit too American centric: the eco-index was developed in conjunction with the European Outdoor Group…

    From my understanding the index was a company (as opposed to consumer) facing tool that facilitates easy improvement, by grading what works towards improvement in practice. The principle is that you take the current situation & see where you can improve the rating within the next time period

    Being inwards looking it therefore negates its role as a marketing driver, but Nau seem to want to re-position the tool

    In this light, I hope that you will report how much improvement there is at the time of the next audit

  • August 3, 2011 at 12:17 pm | leighann says

    Charles, Malinda- You both bring up some great points. Most of our team, including Jamie, is in Utah this week, but check back tomorrow for a response. We want to make sure to get Jamie’s expertise on the questions you posed.

  • August 3, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Emely lotfe says

    Hi im Emely Lotfe and i design eco fashion purses. I would appreciate if you would email me the articles pertaining to the above issue.
    My designs. can be viewed on facebook: Voltaecodesign emely lotfe.

    Thanks for the interesting articule.

  • August 4, 2011 at 7:01 pm | leighann says

    Charles, you are right; the Eco Index was developed in collaboration with the European Outdoor Group. Today, the Index includes membership companies that account for up to 60% of the global apparel business, so it is inherently a global tool and has the possibility of making a huge impact. Although the Eco Index is not a consumer-facing tool, we hope to use the measurements to inform our decision-making process. However, in the future, the Eco Index could serve to educate consumers. Our goal is to be as transparent as possible with our consumers on the sustainability of our products.

  • August 4, 2011 at 7:04 pm | leighann says

    Malinda-Great point. We are, indeed, using other sustainable fibers moving forward. In fact, this Fall, we are introducing yak and Cocona, an insulation made from coconuts. We also plan on using hemp, silk, and organic linen in our upcoming 2012 and 2013 collections.

  • August 12, 2011 at 7:45 am | charles r says

    Leighann

    When you say up to 60% of the clothing business – are you confusing it with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (who do recommend the tool – but this is a separate body from the OIA & the EOG)? I like your company values – but am worried about the green-washing potential

    regards

  • August 16, 2011 at 12:40 pm | leighann says

    Charles-In our blog, we wrote about the Eco Index. However, the Eco Index will be transitioning into a new tool (name, yet to be decided), that will debut in 2012. These two tools are still merging and morphing and will ultimately be utilized by both the members of the Outdoor Industry Association and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. Together, both of these organizations account for 60% of the global apparel business.

    Our goal with this blog series is to create awareness and transparency around the efforts of the industry, but also with a discerning eye. In addition, we want to create an open dialogue—a forum—for Nau readers to ask questions, challenge thinking and be curious. So thank you for your insightful observations and questions.

  • August 21, 2011 at 9:09 am | Malinda says

    Leighann,
    Wonderful news that you are going forward with alternative fibers.

  • [...] August in the Thought Kitchen, we featured a two-part, behind-the-scenes look the Eco Index—a collaborative effort with the [...]

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