We know the global garment industry and its long, complicated and often invisible supply chains are a major sustainability challenge. Despite the incredible attention given to this issue both here, and among corporate champions like Nike, we're still far from the industry-wide shifts that are necessary to both protect garment workers and ensure the industry reduces its environmental impact.
One opportunity to create this type of wide-scale change is in the European Commission's Garment Initiative, which aims to support its member governments and other actors in responsibly managing their supply chains. If it goes through, and is as strong as many hope, it could be a huge game-changer for the global garment industry.
At the forefront of the effort to implement strong garment policies in Europe is one of the organizations leading the push for standardization across the industry; the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC). The SAC is a multi-stakeholder initiative started five years ago. It includes dozens of members from the corporate sector, governments and civil society, and its members account for more than a third of the global apparel and footwear market. They are working to bring everyone together to determine a common strategy for achieving what is widely considered imperative – truly sustainable supply chains across the garment and apparel industries.
“Companies have come to the SAC because they want to see a standardized approach to the industry,” said Jason Kibbey, who has served as CEO of SAC since its inception. “It's not a very controversial issue.”
Still, it is not without challenges. The SAC faced criticism for sometimes being slow in getting all of its members to adopt agreed-upon standards, such as the the Higg Index, an industry-wide sustainable apparel standard, released in July of 2012. Kibbey acknowledged this, while pointing to the inherent challenges in bringing together such a huge, diverse and complex industry.
“If you look at any industry, there is no industry that has agreed to a common sustainability framework and implemented that framework more rapidly than we are,” Kibbey told 3p. “If one that expects that any industry can all agree to what's important and measure that information and share that information in two or three years, that's just not possible. It takes time.”
It's true that SAC's very existence and breadth make it unique. Beyond working directly with its members to build transparency, part of SAC's work also means pushing for effective government and multinational standards. This is why Europe's Garment Initiative is so important. Making progress will not be easy. The European Union is a complex beast and brings together diverse countries with widely different agendas.
Even on apparel, several EU member-nations, such as Germany and the Netherlands, are working on developing their own standards. Nothing is yet set in stone -- and the next few months will be key, Kibbey told us.
“Right now there is a significant policy discussion going on, and considerable debate on what is the best way to move forward,” Kibbey said.
That size may be a challenge, but it is also a huge opportunity. The EU is the largest consumer market in the world, with a population of over 800 million covering mostly developed, consumer-demand-driven economies across Europe. As we've seen with other supply chains, when one of the largest entities mandates change, quite often, the entire market changes.
“The reason we work a lot with Europe is that we believe what they choose and implement will have a huge influence throughout the world,” Kibbey said. “We would like to see them implement [policies] that are usable and scalable, and lead to environmental and social improvements.”
That means what the EU decides on would impact supply chains, and the availability of sustainable garments here in the United States. Even more promisingly, it could result in real changes in factories in Asia and Africa where many of these garments are produced.
It won't be easy. But despite the challenges ahead, Kibbey is cautiously optimistic, seeing hope in how so many actors are, at least, talking about how to move forward.
“Though the European Commission is a very complicated organization, there does seem to be general alignment among general stakeholders, policymakers, and even companies on some common goals for standardization of assessment and measurements,” Kibbey told 3p. “If we can build on that common goal, we'll actually achieve something quite remarkable.”
Depending on what the EU decides, we could be on the cusp of major change in the apparel industry. But one thing is clear: The momentum is on the side of transparency and sustainability in the apparel industry. The sooner, the better.