I was backpacking with three friends this past weekend in Point Reyes National Seashore and our equipment was a smörgåsbord of outdoor retail brand names: Marmot, The North Face, REI, Therm-a-Rest and Patagonia, to name a few.
What do these five brand names have in common? They are all part of the Outdoor Industry Association’s (OIA) Eco Working Group and have helped to create the recently launched Eco Index. Green Biz.com, Fast Company and the Wall Street Journal have done a great job of describing the new tool, designed for use by a diverse group of stakeholders from product designers to suppliers to help companies assess their products across the product life cycle: materials, packaging, product manufacturing and assembly, transport and distribution, use and service and end of life.
The Eco Index is inviting all brands, suppliers and retailers of outdoor apparel, footwear and gear to participate in a pilot test. Rather than repeat here what has already been said in the previous posts, this piece focuses on answering the question, “Why should companies pilot the new Eco Index?” I conclude with three tips to consider if you are going to participate in the pilot.
Three Reasons to Participate in the Pilot
#1 Help Raise the Sustainability Bar for the Outdoor Industry: While the Wall Street Journal headline reads, “Are your Nikes greener than your Adidas?”, I personally think the importance of the new tool is the potential to raise the sustainability bar for an industry that depends on healthy, diverse ecosystems. As we know from other collaborative efforts working to green their supply chains, such as the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) and the Better Cotton Initiative, to make a complex supply chain greener takes collective pressure from a group of key buyers with enough muscle to move the meter. By working together, the outdoor industry can create market demand for more sustainable materials that achieve the performance and quality outdoor enthusiasts demand.
Scott Leonard, CEO of Indigenous Designs has been actively involved with OIA and is a founding brand member of the Eco Working Group. He explained, “I am hopeful that the Eco Index will influence and guide sustainable practices throughout the outdoor industry, putting it ahead of the sustainability curve. If we are going to move the needle on eco-products, we need to work collaboratively with the larger brands.”
#2 Phased Approach:
The tool includes three components, allowing companies to phase their approach. The first level, product design guidelines, are ideal for companies just beginning to think about how to green their products, facilities and designs.
The next level is a comparative scoring system at the indicator level. For companies ready to go deeper, the third component provides a road map for beginning to explore the complex landscape of full product lifecycle, starting with metrics for water, waste and energy use/GHG. The ultimate goal down the line might be a consumer-facing “eco-label” that helps consumers make smarter purchasing choices, but for now, the tool is designed to be an internal tool.
“The Eco Index is currently designed as an internal tool, not a consumer-facing eco-label. The options for making it a consumer label may be explored in the future once the framework and content have undergone the necessary review,” explained Beth Jensen, Corporate Responsibility Manager at the OIA
#3 Easy Way to Identify Your Key Product Blind Spots: While I would argue it makes good business sense to invest in a more comprehensive sustainability strategy, Jensen stressed that the tool is designed to make it easy for companies to analyze their products using in-house staff.
According to Jensen, an in-house engineer at Cascade Designs tested out the tool on the MSR WhisperLite Internationale stove and took the product through the entire indicator level of the Index. They immediately identified three key areas for improvement.
It is hard to tell without diving in, but I get the sense that gathering the data you need to complete the indicators process will take a commitment of staff or consultant time.
Advice If You Pilot
Before you commit to the pilot, I suggest you consider the following:
- Get senior level buy-in: It is great to identify areas of improvement, but you want senior management behind you when you ask for resources to explore new suppliers or design options. Before you commit, get senior support for the concept.
- ROI: More efficient packaging and manufacturing processes will save you money in the long run. For potential changes, do a back-of-the-envelope assessment to identify the potential cost savings.
- Consider your communications strategy: The results of the tool are meant to be internal, but offer a great opportunity to inform your customers and stakeholders of your process, results and future action plan.
- Explore website: Go to www.ecoindexbeta.org, the beta website for the Eco Index.
- Contact OIA: Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, email address, company name and the product(s) you intend to pilot.
- Sign-up for a free webinar: A webinar series will be held beginning September 14, 2010 to provide additional Eco Index training.
Deborah Fleischer is President of Green Impact, a strategic environmental consulting practice that helps companies engage employees, strengthen relationships with stakeholders, launch profitable green initiatives and communicate about their successes and challenges.