OIA’s Eco Working Group Moves Ahead

Two years ago, some outdoor companies hatched a plan: Instead of struggling for common ground when they talked about their green initiatives, why not establish an industry-wide set of standards that could frame the conversation and let companies compare different items in terms of overall impact?

The idea led to the creation of the Outdoor Industry Association’s Eco Working Group, a coalition of outdoor vendors, retailers and manufacturers that set out to create a tool by which all the products in the industry could be examined and ranked, so companies interested in their environmental footprint could get a real, data-backed sense of their impact.

In addition to being an internal product creation tool and a method for brands to refine their environmental message, the group has lately had an additional incentive. More and more consumer groups and NGOs (such as Greenpeace, which in June released a report that accused several major footwear brands of using Amazon rainforest leathers) are putting pressure on brands to know their products and supply chains, and governmental groups around the world have shown an increased interest in regulation of consumer products.

Amy Roberts, VP of government affairs for OIA, said new provisions in the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act and other legislative initiatives will likely impose additional standards on companies. “One of the goals is to educate the membership,” she said, adding that the Working Group’s guidelines could give the industry a voice in what regulations are passed and let it “advocate for incentive-based regulations.”

The Mission

Putting together a comprehensive tool, however, has meant making a lot of decisions. A vote early on determined that the Working Group’s ultimate goal would be an industry index that was modular and scalable, to give the varied companies in the industry the freedom to concentrate on their particular focus — and their abilities. A main concern was making the end product something that smaller, independent companies could use with as much ease as big, monetized companies, Roberts said.

Currently, the Working Group includes volunteers from 70 paying members, from the retailing, manufacturing and supply worlds, including Timberland, Patagonia, New Balance, Brooks, REI and Nike. The group also regularly draws on the expertise of outside sources, including sustainability consultants such as Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit Zero Waste Alliance. The breadth of the group’s base, according to Derek Campbell, future concepts manager at Bothell, Wash.-based Brooks Sports and a member of the Working Group, has given it a huge number of products and materials to assess. “We cover running shoes to carabiners — it’s a big, big area,” he said. “And we’re chasing something this large with a diverse group of stakeholders, some of whom are fierce competitors.”

Two years in, the group has established some important baselines — in essence, it has defined what the finished index will cover. Pamela Brody-Heine, product stewardship manager for ZWA, presented the group’s progress at a meeting last month at the Outdoor Retailer show. According to the Working Group, it has set seven major categories of impact to be included in the index: water use; energy use and greenhouse gas emissions; waste; land use intensity; toxics that impact the environment; toxics that impact people; and biodiversity. It also identified six major areas where the impacts should be measured: in materials; product manufacturing; consumer packaging; transportation and distribution; product use; and at the end of the product lifecycle.

Committees dedicated to each area have been tasked with creating guidelines that outline best practices and principles, determining indicators to assess the impact of each category, and finally deciding on units of measurement and a standard way of doing the measuring.

As of right now, significant progress has been made in the three categories the group decided had the most impact and would be the first priority: energy and greenhouse gases, water and waste. On the product manufacturing side, the group has released packaging guidelines and is working on manufacturing standards for plants, products and calculations. The materials group has completed a list of guidelines and is working on the indicators list for recycled materials and toxic materials. And across all fields, the Working Group has been incorporating existing listings, guidelines and standards to avoid duplication of effort.

Future Outlook

Roberts said the Working Group will decide in the next six to eight months if it wants to go forward with a beta version of the label. Of course, that presents its own set of challenges — for instance, what information do they include and what is the appropriate use of such an index. “If they do decide to roll out the index in part, what is the appropriate index to put out?” she asked. Whether the index is debuted in stages or in a final-but-revisable form, she said, “it’s an ongoing process.”

Eric Brody, principal at Shift Advantage, a Portland, Ore.-based firm that works with ZWA, cautioned that the final measurement step alone will take time. “Before we get [to an index], there’s a lot of work to do to measure impacts,” he said.

But even when the index has been published, group participants said, there are still avenues to be explored. Looking even further into the future, Campbell said the desire is there to convert the group’s index into something that customers could use. “Everyone’s natural inclination is to think it could turn into a [product] labeling system,” he said. With other organizations already providing or attempting to provide green information to consumers — Campbell cited Timberland’s Green Index and Wal-Mart’s recent plan to fund a similarly all-inclusive measurement and evaluation system — the index could be an important way to communicate with shoppers. “We want customers to understand what’s involved in their product decision,” Campbell said.

Either way, members of the group said the creation and evolution of the index would be an ongoing, long-term project. “You can let the perfect get the way of the good, or the better,” Campbell said. “We’re striving to be better.”

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