‘Responsible sourcing’ and ‘product stewardship’ are terms we hear regularly. While they sound great, we need to maintain focus to really make an impact.
The chemicals used in apparel, footwear and textiles can and should be a part of that focus. They are the basic building blocks for materials and they determine everything from color to water or stain repellence, and how likely a product is to shrink or wrinkle. It’s not a matter of developing a fear of chemicals and chemistry, but companies should know what is being used to make our products, why we are choosing particular chemicals and where they all go.
Even for those of us in the industry, getting a handle on product chemistry can be challenging. Chemistry crosses several levels of the supply chain and each level is under pressure to make the right choices. Chemical regulations have developed across the globe at the country, state, county, or city levels. Sometimes these regulations agree with each other; sometimes they are intentionally different. NGOs also bring attention to chemical use through collaboration or confrontation. And consumers are increasingly aware of how chemicals in products affect their families. Regardless of the source of the attention, transparency and traceability are common demands, along with growing demand for better, safer chemistry.
As a brand, manufacturer or consumer, it is hard to know where to start. However, there are multiple organizations and collaborations that welcome participation at all levels, from deep chemistry dives to tool development and implementation. Find the tools that work for your products and supply chain then engage.
It is important to get started with something that’s backed by science, scalable (on a time and cost basis) to your supply chain and addresses your challenges. There are at least three critical areas for brands, suppliers and consumers:
• Input Control – Using better chemistry in a process can mean safer products with and lower environmental impact
• Process Control – Understanding proper chemical use, quality management, health & safety and environmental performance are all important
• Output Control – Measuring what leaves the factory can help you verify if controls around input and process are adequate
Due to the sheer scope and size of supply chains, it’s unlikely that suppliers will be using a single system–nor should they. But suppliers’ actions still require strategy and scalability, and those that aren’t doing enough may not make the cut.
Companies should be asking their suppliers, for one, how the factory selects chemicals. The answers should include information on how they choose chemistries that deliver the right performance while minimizing or maintaining control of hazardous chemicals. Approved chemical lists should be a priority for suppliers. Cleaner/greener/safer chemistry needs to be communicated as a priority for the consumer, the brand and the manufacturers. Suppliers need to know how and where to search for these better chemicals.
Companies should also be asking suppliers what programs they have in place to control manufacturing processes, measure quality, protect their team and ensure compliance with environmental regulations.
The answers should include information on programs for health and safety and quality management, as well as copies of permits and third-party certifications. All this documentation should be in place and traceable upon request.
Lastly, companies should inquire about how their suppliers can they prove what leaves their facility is safe and compliant. The answers should give confidence that they look at all discharge points for water, waste, and of course, the actual product. Chemical requirements vary depending on whether a material or product is intended for children, adults or wall decoration. If they/you have never looked at the chemical content of product or waste streams, you might not be as safe as you should be.
Hope and looking away are not substitutes for strategy.
Chemistry may not (yet) be the bright and shiny object that everyone wishes for. But, when we focus on chemicals—how they are used and where they are going—we protect people, the environment, products and our reputations. That is what makes chemistry an integral part or responsible sourcing and product stewardship.
John Frazier serves as the senior technical director for the Hohenstein Institute of America, working with brands, manufacturers and chemical companies to develop tools that enable more sustainable manufacturing of apparel and footwear. Prior to Hohenstein, John served as the senior director of chemistry for Nike, working on greener chemistry, water stewardship and product innovation.