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How to Choose Supply Chain Partners to Improve Sustainability

Manufacturers know there is an environmental cost to each and every piece produced. To create a more sustainable environment, many firms are looking at their supply chains to see what can be improved.

While the price of entering the world of sustainability and level of commitment may be high, companies like Patagonia choose to work with partners to improve labor conditions, restrict the use of dangerous chemicals and increase transparency of social and environmental practices. In even the largest firms, “you cannot audit all the conditions in all of the factories yourself,” said Vincent Stanley, director of philosophy for Patagonia, so supply chain partners are necessary.

In 2010, Patagonia helped found the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which today has more than 100 members who produce about 40 percent of the footwear and apparel sold in the world. The Coalition’s Higg Index, which is a standard for assessing environmental and social supply chain sustainability, may soon help consumers determine the social and environmental impact of a garment with the simple smartphone scan of a hangtag.

Aside from the environmental benefits, Stanley stresses that supply chain partnerships are important, even for small and medium-sized firms because they can reveal inefficient practices and, in turn, unearth ways to cut costs. For outdoor retailer Black Diamond (BD), engaging with sustainable textile system certifier bluesign provides “the fastest and easiest methodology to ensure compliance to all global chemical requirements and consumer safety” by vetting suppliers and closely examining supply chain substances, explained Jeff Nash, equipment vice president of engineering support services for BD. “This value outweighs all costs incurred,” he said.

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Companies like Lululemon and The North Face have also turned to bluesign to audit their supply chains. So far, The North Face has converted over 36 percent of its total fabric volume to the bluesign standard and identifies compliant garments on its website for consumers.

Here is a list of supply chain partners who work with the apparel industry and a sampling of the brand partners or members who have joined them.

B Corp: To qualify as a B Corp, a firm must have a social or environmental mission and a legally-binding fiduciary responsibility with regard to the interests of workers, the community, the environment and shareholders. There are 963 B Corps ranging from retail to agriculture to financial organizations, and members tend to be eco trailblazers in their respective industries. Members are charged an annual fee based on their revenues. B Corps is a non-profit organization.

Members Include: Dansko, Method, Patagonia, and Seventh Generation

bluesign: This for-profit certifier audits the water, energy and chemical usage of supply-chain partners and helps set and control standards for environmentally-friendly and safe production. Certification involves manufacturers, suppliers and brands, and is meant for companies interested in achieving near complete transparency and traceability in their supply chains. Annual fees depend on the size and type of company, while certification costs depend on complexity of the factory/factories and type/number of chemicals used.

Partners Include: Black Diamond, G-Star Raw, Helly Hansen, Lululemon, Mammut and The North Face

Fair Factories Clearinghouse: The Clearinghouse, a non-profit funded by member contributions and a grant from the U.S. Department of State, is a database that helps track and manage social and environmental data. FFC enables companies to share audit results with other apparel brands doing business in the same factories, and vice versa, to reduce the overall number of audits. Membership spans from farms to factories to importers and brands for purposes including the determination of supply chain overlap and potential opportunities for collaboration. Dues are tied to net revenues.

Members Include: Adidas, L.L. Bean, New Balance, Nike and Nordstrom

Fair Labor Association: Non-profit FLA was founded by President Clinton in 1996 as a way for NGOs and multinational companies to work together to improve working conditions in the apparel and footwear industries. The organization acts as a third-party monitor and publicly discloses the findings of audits in its members’ factories. Companies choosing FLA are passionate about providing humane working conditions and fair wages. Dues for brands and retailers are a percentage of gross annual revenues.

Members Include: H&M, Hanes Brands, New Era and PVH

Outdoor Industry Association — Sustainability Working Group: Outdoor brands, textile firms and certifiers collaborate to identify and reduce the environmental and social impacts of their products. The current 450 members of SIA have the opportunity to shape future Eco Index (a means to chart an organization’s progress toward sustainability) content and other tools by voting in the approval process. There is no cost to join the SWG; however voting members pay an annual fee based on a sliding scale tied to corporate revenue and OIA membership.

Members Include: Deckers, Keen, Merrell and Quicksilver

Sustainable Apparel Coalition: The SAC is a trade group comprised of brands, retailers, manufacturers, government and non-governmental organizations and academic experts focused on reducing the environmental and social impacts of apparel and footwear. Members, who pay annual dues, may provide input and help shape the Coalition’s Higg Index, which is an in-development method of standardizing the measurement of environmental and social impacts across the product lifecycle.

Members Include: Asics, Columbia, Burberry, Marmot, Patagonia, REI and VF Corp

Textile Exchange: Formerly known as Organic Exchange, Textile Exchange is a non-profit organization committed to minimizing the harmful impacts of the global textile industry. Members include manufacturers, textile mills and brands interested in finding and using environmentally preferred raw materials, such as organic cotton. Membership ranges from $3,000 to $12,500 per year for access to industry experts, networking opportunities, one-on-one consulting, content standards and comprehensive industry reports and tools.

Members Include: Esprit, Gap, Intidex, Puma, Lands’ End and Target