Inside the New Eco Index

The drive to green labeling has taken a major step forward.

After more than three years of research, debate and discussion, the Outdoor Industry Association’s Eco Working Group released the inaugural version of the Eco Index to its members this summer. The beta rollout of the index — an online tool that creates an industry-wide set of guidelines, measurement standards and protocols that brands and vendors can use to assess the environmental impacts of their products — marks a milestone in the group’s efforts.

But while it was designed to be applicable across the outdoor industry, the index has been finding an even more diverse group of fans. Brands, organizations and retailers from the athletic and fashion industries have signed on for the beta trial, and hopes are high for the future of the index.

“We have enough work under our belts that it was time to get way more public and get a broader set of eyes and critics on it so that we can further strengthen it,” said Kevin Myette, director of product quality at Kent, Wash.-based REI and a founding member of the group.

To that end, the EWG debuted Ecoindexbeta.org before this summer’s outdoor market trade shows in Friedrichshafen, Germany, and Salt Lake City. On the site, the group has identified six stages of a product’s life cycle: materials, packaging, manufacturing, transportation, product use and end of life. The group also has broken down the environmental impact of a product into seven areas: land use intensity; water use; waste created; biodiversity; chemicals and toxins affecting both people and the environment; energy use; and emissions.

Three levels of analysis are possible using the index. The “guidelines” level lists recommendations and best practices, and is aimed at companies just beginning to look at their green practices. The “indicators” level, which Amy Roberts, VP of government relations for the OIA, said probably will be the entry point for most users, offers a way to begin assessing the ecological impact of a given product. Then the “metrics” level — the third and most advanced level of the tool — can put actual numbers to products, determining a score that can be compared with other products or used to benchmark progress.

Visitors to the site can download spreadsheets, see sample assessments and discuss the tools in the forums. “It’s completely open-source for anyone to use,” said Roberts. The goal, she added, is to get as many parties using the index as possible, across product categories and countries, to gather feedback.

And so far, Roberts said, the response has been stronger than expected. More than 300 brand reps, suppliers and factory employees attended the introductory panels held at the Outdoor Retailer show, and in all, more than 80 brands, suppliers and retailers signed up for the pilot program.

For the brands testing the index, figuring out how the tool fits into their design processes will be a major step forward for the industry, said REI’s Myette. “Our biggest opportunity right now is about learning and educating our supply chain on impacts,” he said. “You don’t manage what you don’t measure, and you can’t change what you don’t know.”

Myette said REI would use the index to study three categories of its private-label products: a collection of socks, a tent and a bicycle. The items were chosen, in part, because the retailer felt confident that its relationships in the supply chain would let it gather the necessary information, but Myette said REI also wanted to test the index on a variety of products. “We purposefully said we wanted to make the index as applicable to the bike as to the sock,” he said.

At Boston-based New Balance, the goal is to figure out how the index can be incorporated into the company’s existing sustainability process, according to Elaine Delgado, manager of sustainable product stewardship. Delgado said the company will begin using the index at the indicator level for styles from its running line, focusing on the materials category. “We wanted to have more experience using the tool,” she said.

And at Stratham, N.H.-based Timberland, the company will work at the metrics level on leather footwear styles, according to senior manager of environmental stewardship Betsy Blaisdell, to round out the field of shoe types in the launch.

But while the test group is still “heavily” weighted to the outdoor industry, Roberts said, other organizations will participate, including Kohls, JCPenney, Walmart, Levi’s, Adidas, Asics and Puma, as well as the American Apparel and Footwear Association and the World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry. “We are actively promoting the collaboration between these groups and other organizations to promote an industrywide solution in environmental management,” said Karin Ekberg, head of environmental services for Adidas Group, which plans to review the applicability of the tool for its business model.

Steve Lamar, EVP of the AAFA, added, “We’re encouraging folks to participate in the pilot program, either by running products or facilities through it, or by doing desktop reviews. All our members are spending a lot more time on environmental issues, and it’s a topic that continues to come up in many different applications. And one of the things this does is helps people understand how their supply chain works from a sustainability standpoint.”

Of course, the beta launch doesn’t mean the work is over. Not every category of the index is finished. And, Myette said, the ultimate goal is to move the tool from its current state — where brands can benchmark existing product and predict future impacts — to a form where it can be integrated into a company’s product line management software, so “the environmental impacts can be put right alongside [other design metrics such as] abrasion resistance,” he said. “For it to work, it has to be forward looking.”

And while the EWG plans to conclude the beta test and finalize the tool early next year, it will be some time — some say years — before the work on the industry side could become a consumer product label. The EWG has not officially set the label as a final goal, although many group members have said it is the logical end point. “We are impatient, and we would love to see a consumer-facing label,” Blaisdell said. “We’ve been doing our label for years now, and we would love to get to a stage of apples-to-apples comparison.”

Myette agreed, but said the first steps had been taken. “I honestly believe we need to do a better job to educate consumers,” he said. “But before we do that, we need to educate ourselves. And that’s what this does.”

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