As a whole, clothing companies have a notorious record of harsh labor and environmental practices. But that record may be changing. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a team of thirty major apparel brands and retailers, has committed to transforming the industry’s reputation for social responsibility. Even labels that have previously made ethical blacklists, such as Nike, Adidas, and the Gap, are working to clean up their acts.
Working Toward a Sustainable Dress Code
These apparel brands, along with institutions like Duke University and organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund, launched their coalition on March 10, 2011, with the aim of establishing an industry-wide database for tracking the environmental impact and fair labor practices of clothing and shoe production. The index, which is still being developed, will serve as a standard for manufacturing procedures and will be the basis for a label that will be placed on individual products to help consumers make world-friendly choices.
This is a promising development for the future of the apparel industry, but it turns out that many major labels are already doing their part (and not the labels you’d think!).
Nike Just Does Sustainable Design
The name “Nike” was once synonymous with sweatshop labor, and the sneaker industry in general is notorious for negatively impacting the environment; but now Nike is trying to earn back some karma points. It has found a way to turn leather waste into fuel, according to Jeffrey B. Swartz, chief executive of Timberland, who was interviewed by the New York Times about green athletic shoes.
Nike has also launched an Environmental Apparel Design Tool that helps designers make informed decisions about how to produce work that uses the least amount of natural resources. In addition, the company has established codes of conduct and auditing procedures to ensure that its nearly eight hundred thousand workers across the globe are operating under safe and humane labor practices.
At Adidas, Sustainability Is Everything
Another major sneaker label, Adidas, has made great strides in improving its reputation where socially and environmentally conscious practices are concerned. The company cofounded the Better Cotton Initiative with the aim of cutting water consumption and pesticide use in cotton production, and is committed to using 100 percent “Better Cotton” by 2018. It also stopped using PVC (a toxic plastic) and all non–water based adhesives in 2000. Adidas’ Environmental Strategy for 2015 states that the company will cut 30 percent of relative carbon emissions at all of its locations.
In efforts to improve labor practices and communities, Adidas is a participating company in the Fair Labor Association. The company has set up worker hotlines in more than four hundred factories across China and has fully funded the Sudhaar community project, which provides schooling to children in Pakistan. It has also launched a partnership with Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammed Yunus to develop a shoe that poor people around the globe can afford.
The Gap Falls into Social Responsibility
The Gap is another major brand associated with sweatshop labor and unsound environmental practices that is trying to reform its reputation.
Gap’s Recycle Your Blues campaign, a partnership with Cotton Incorporated, encourages customers across North America to exchange their old jeans for 30 percent off a new pair. The program then turns the recovered denim into fiber insulation for Habitat for Humanity homes.
The company also participates in the Denim Clean Water Program, which means that the water used to wash jeans during manufacturing is tested to ensure that it is safe for local communities once it leaves the denim laundry.
Beginning in 2008, the company began transitioning its packaging to recycled paper and now sells gift cards made of 88 percent recycled content. Gap employees at all headquarters buildings are trained in waste-reducing disposal behaviors, and executives are brainstorming ways to reduce cardboard used in shipping products to stores.
Green Is the New Black
It seems the hottest fashion trend for 2011 is green gear, and major clothing manufacturers are working hard to meet the demand. Many of these businesses—though their names evoke news stories of corporate greed and abuse—have already reformed many of their practices, and the formation of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition further marks a revolution in how clothing is made, bought, and sold.