Timberland Joins Other Brands to Develop Footwear Index
It used to be that grading the environmental impacts of apparel and footwear products and their manufacturing processes was like judging an Olympic event where one competitor was pole vaulting, another was diving, and a third was performing a floor exercise in gymnastics. There simply was no standard for evaluating one against the other.
In 2007, Timberland joined forces with REI to launch a group within the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) that was then called the Eco Working Group. The group set out to find a common way to measure the performance of outdoor industry products. The impetus for the project was the “nutrition label” concept that Timberland had introduced the preceding year. According to Betsy Blaisdell, Timberland’s senior manager of environmental stewardship, “REI and others thought, ‘That’s a really cool idea. What if we came up with something similar so that consumers could make more informed purchasing decisions?’”
What started as a small group of leading outdoor brands turned into an industry-wide effort involving nearly 200 brands and their suppliers. The initiative got so much momentum that other industry sectors—like the apparel industry—took notice and organized to adopt the tool. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) is the largest collaboration of the world’s leading apparel brands and retailers working together on a more comprehensive, industry-wide scale. In addition to leveraging the OIA’s work, they have incorporated data from Nike to make a tool specific to the entire apparel industry.
The result is an Excel-based tool that asks “literally hundreds of questions,” according to Blaisdell. The scores are then broken down into three areas: a brand-level score, which measures how the brand is managing its environmental footprint from a policy standpoint; a facility-level score, which measures the impacts of suppliers’ manufacturing processes; and a product-level score, which allows one product to be rated against another in terms of its environmental footprint. “We’re in the process of adding social-related questions,” Blaisdell says.
The SAC voted to approve this new index in June 2012 renamed the Higg Index. The SAC’s index is intended to measure—and even inspire—a similar fundamental shift in product design and manufacturing. Brands and their supply chains began piloting the Higg Index this past summer.
While the SAC’s work was underway, Timberland and other major footwear brands like Adidas and Nike formed a separate group within the SAC to develop an index specific to footwear. “It’s a very collaborative effort,” Blaisdell reports. In addition to experts within these footwear brands, nonprofit organizations, governmental agencies, and academia are also involved to create the most informed and in-depth tool possible.
Timberland hopes that the culmination of this work will be an index that allows brands to work with retailers and suppliers to make decisions that are informed by environmental and social impacts. Working collaboratively with suppliers—and ideally one day with consumers—will empower all of us to make better choices that have a positive impact for our planet.
The Higg Index is now live but will only be internal facing for the next several years. The Footwear Index will be available in the summer of 2013.
Because Timberland remains committed to transparency, we will continue to use the Green Index® rating to provide consumers with environmental performance data for footwear until the consumer-facing industry standard is achieved. Based on her work with the SAC and OIA, Blaisdell is optimistic that collaborating brands in the SAC and OIA efforts may reach an agreement on communicating the impacts of these tools to consumers in the next few years.
After all, developing a tool that lets consumers evaluate products on an apples-to-apples basis is the ultimate goal. And for that, industry-wide cooperation is essential. As Blaisdell puts it, “No one brand can really move the needle on its own. It’s through collaborative efforts like these that we can see improvements in the environmental performance of our supply chain.”