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.
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.
Words by Leighann Franson.