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Outdoor Industry Takes on Water Sustainability

28 January 2013
Published in Environment
Written by  Julie Kiefer

Salt Lake City - At the “Close to Nature” fashion show held at the Outdoor Retailer convention last week, models flaunted the latest styles in outdoor apparel. Yet behind an eco-friendly veneer lies an uncomfortable truth.

“The reality is that behind the scenes, the outdoor industry is incredibly water intensive,” says Matt Thurston, analyst for the outdoor recreation retailer, REI. Thurston says it takes about 12 gallons of water to produce a single fleece jacket, and that’s a conservative estimate. Many textile producing countries are in places that the United Nations estimates will be water stressed by 2025, making excessive water usage a concern.

That’s not the only challenge facing the industry. Fabrics frequently used in performance clothing such as polyester and nylon are difficult to dye, so heavy metals and other toxic compounds are added to aid the process. According to the World Bank, up to 20 percent of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment.

Both excessive water use and water pollution are detrimental to the health of the world’s waterways. “Water sustainability is the next big issue. It’s similar to where renewable energy issues were ten years ago,” says Todd Reeve with Bonneville Environmental Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works with outdoor companies and others to find environmentally sound solutions.

Cleaning Up It’s Act

A Google image search of “textile pollution” brings up pictures of rivers colored brilliant red and yellow. They might be considered beautiful if it weren’t so unnatural. A 2012 report issued by Green Choice Alliance, an environmental watchdog, reveals that a large proportion of Chinese textile factories violate environmental regulations, including releasing untreated wastewater directly into rivers. China, the world’s largest manufacturer of clothing, is not the only country with this problem.

“How we control that [overseas activities] is a considerable challenge for us,” admits David Parks, CEO of Concept III Textiles, a developer of performance textiles for leading outdoor apparel companies such as Patagonia, La Sportiva and Arc’teryx. Concept III works with ten mills, eight of which are international. It can be difficult for suppliers like Concept III to keep track of each country’s labyrinth of environmental regulations.

Instead of relying on government enforcement, which can be spotty, influential companies are taking matters into their own hands. They are leveraging their buying power to pressure manufacturers to clean up their act.

In 2010, the Outdoor Industry Association, title sponsor of Outdoor Retailer, devised a metrics tool to measure sustainability of products. In 2012, a coalition of 60 top clothing companies including Nike and Target improved on the tool, now called the Higg Index. It evaluates whether a manufacturer’s products are environmentally sound, taking into account everything from how they get their raw materials to how long their products last. For textile manufacturers, water management makes up a substantial portion of their score.

Thurson says REI plans to use the Higg Index scores to gauge the performance of the hundreds of textile mills that they do business with. Their goal is to come up with a model for how their mills should operate. “That’s an incredibly powerful motivator in terms of driving efficiencies,” says Thurston. Over 4,000 factories use the Higg Index, but currently there are no plans to release index scores to the public.

Hiring Outside Investigators

Some companies are unsure if imposing the Higg Index will be enough. Tracking each incremental step is a gargantuan task that often relies on self-reporting by the manufacturer, a technique that can be unreliable.

The North Face, Patagonia, and Concept III are among over two hundred clothing companies that are looking toward a third party, Bluesign Technologies of Switzerland, to perform the most stringent environmental certification of its kind.

A textile mill will pay from $15,000 to $70,000 for a thorough inspection of their facilities. Among other measures, Bluesign investigates what chemicals are used, where they are stored, where pollutants end up, how much water and energy is used, and whether employees work under safe conditions. From there, the auditors suggest changes that can cost the mill millions of dollars and take years to complete. In return, the mill earns a brand’s loyalty.

After their Bluesign audit, one of Concept III’s mills, Kingwhale Industries in Taiwan, went through a major overhaul. They made many improvements including installing a water treatment plant to keep contaminated wastewater from flowing into a nearby river. They also developed a new technology that allows polyester to take up dye more readily. The advances resulted in reducing usage of electricity by 22%, water by 60%, and cutting toxic chemical waste. Concept III is now keeping an eye on other emerging technologies, such as waterless dying, that will reduce water use, and is requiring that all their mills become Bluesign compliant.

There are different reasons that outdoor industry leaders invest in these efforts. One is social responsibility. Another is to preserve the waterways that they love. “[Addressing water sustainability] is better for the ecology, better for customers and employees and our company who care about these things,” says Hans Cole, advocacy manager for Patagonia. “We’re fly fisherman, we’re people who go out and paddle, and recreate in rivers.”

Patagonia was among the first to insist on Bluesign certification. 16 percent of fabrics used in Patagonia apparel were Bluesign approved as of 2012. The new goal is for all of their fabrics to meet that standard by 2015.

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