Sustainable Apparel Coalition Smell Test

New Orleans Last week something called the SustaiClothes drying on clotheslinenable Apparel Coalition was announced widely in the papers.  The idea wasn’t bad:  “environment and social impacts” of their products.  The statement of the chair of the outfit from Patagonia said:

“The largest and most influential corporations in apparel and footwear together with leading environmental and social organizations have voluntarily engaged in this collective effort because they recognize the opportunity to get in front of the growing need to measure and manage the environment and social impacts of their products. More importantly, they recognize the threat to the planet and its inhabitants by continuing the model of ‘business as usual.’ “

The small list of the founding members was broad and included some non-profits like the Environmental Defense Fund, Duke University, and a labor group called Verite.  But the whole list raised the hair on the back of my neck:

Adidas, Arvind Mills, C&A, Duke University, Environmental Defense Fund, Esprit, Esquel, Gap, H&M, HanesBrands, Intradeco, JC Penney, Lenzing, Levi Strauss & Co., Li & Fung, Marks & Spencer, Mountain Equipment Co-op, New Balance, Nike, Nordstrom, Otto Group, Outdoor Industry Association, Patagonia, Pentland Brands, REI, TAL Apparel, Target, Timberland, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Verite, VF Corp. and Walmart.

Wal-Mart, VF Corp (jeans), Target, JC Penney coupled with Nike set off alarms all over the my mind no matter how much I like my New Balance running shoes, my MEC rain jacket, and my discount fleece from Patagonia bought last summer at their Hardin, Montana outlet store.

I reached out for Jeff Ballinger, architect of a lot of the push against Nike and a colleague who regularly keeps me abreast of global efforts to achieve real corporate accountability in this area.   He and his associates were skeptical and very “wait and see” about the enterprise.

My concerns are a couple.  First, their starting point is a tool designed by Nike.  Hmmm?!?  Secondly, this is not a group of equals once behemoths like Wal-Mart are at this quasi-environmental thing, which usually means “marketing madness” when they are in this sort of collaboration.  Thirdly, some of the groups are can seem a little “too friendly” to business in the name of “let’s make a deal.”

The Times report said the scoring tool being developed would be along the following lines:

“The coalition’s tool is meant to be a database of scores assigned to all the players in the life cycle of a garment — cotton growers, synthetic fabric makers, dye suppliers, textile mill owners, as well as packagers, shippers, retailers and consumers — based on a variety of social and environmental measures like water and land use, energy efficiency, waste production, chemical use, greenhouse gases and labor practices.”

Labor practices seem too often to be teetering at the bottom and falling off the list.  That’s very, very troubling.  We can’t have trades of  “lives now” in labor standards for “lives later” in green terms.

One of the emails Ballinger forwarded along raised the issue of why “social responsibility” is now routinely being substituted for “sustainability.”  Excellent point and one that we all need to start watching more carefully in the future.

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