Collaboration Trumps Competition in One Apparel Initiative

This is the inaugural post in a series on sustainability in the health and wellness industry, curated by Becky Eisen, Dana Ledyard, Izabel Loinaz. Follow along with the series here.

By: Beth Jensen, Outdoor Industry Association Tuesday, March 1, 2011 marked a major milestone for collaborative, private sector initiatives: the unveiling of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a group of global apparel and footwear companies committed to reducing the environmental and social impacts of their products.

This announcement was immensely gratifying for the nearly 200 outdoor products companies that have spent thousands of hours over the past three years – often outside of their defined job responsibilities – helping develop the outdoor industry Eco Index. For this body of work to be adopted by the Apparel Coalition – a group which includes Nike, H&M, Target, Gap, and Walmart along with Outdoor Industry Association members such as Patagonia, Timberland, and REI, among others – is a testament to the outdoor industry’s thought leadership in sustainability. But it is also proof of the success of the groundbreaking model employed to create the Eco Index: pre-competitive, transparent, open-source collaboration among companies that are typically competitors.

The outdoor industry is uniquely positioned to pioneer this type of collaborative approach to achieve sustainability improvement. The success of the outdoor industry is intrinsically tied to the health of the planet, and in addition, a disproportionately large number of people who work for outdoor companies do so because they are themselves passionate about spending time outdoors – both factors which create a conducive environment for coming together to advance sustainable business practices within the industry.

I also give credit to the brands and retailers of the Apparel Coalition who have been thinking about and implementing their own sustainability initiatives for some time and have recognized that the only path to real worldwide sustainability improvement is to walk with their industry peers and together use their influence in the supply chain to effect large-scale change.

The first step for other industries looking to mirror the success of the outdoor and apparel sectors is to toss the notion of “sustainability as competitive advantage” out the window. When the Eco Index effort began in 2007, Timberland, REI, GoLite, and a number of other outdoor companies had already done significant work within their own companies on sustainability measurement and/or labeling systems for their own products (i.e. Timberland’s Green Index). It would have been easy for these companies to treat the frameworks and methodologies they had already developed as proprietary. But instead, they became active participants in the Eco Index development process, openly sharing their learnings to help create a robust, credible industry-wide Index.

Only when stakeholders are willing to treat sustainability as a global imperative rather than an opportunity for competitive advantage will collaboration become possible. The outdoor industry, and now, the Apparel Coalition, are proof that a collaborative model can be used to achieve real, scalable shifts toward more responsible business practices.

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