Sustainability Best Practices Part 2 | Using Data to Make Better Sourcing Decisions
Sourcing environmentally-friendly materials, such as recycled polyester fabrics and organic cotton, are the most basic and superficial steps to beginning the transition to a sustainable-driven business. But to progress beyond materials requires deeper data and analysis of the entire supply chain.
Burton uses Life Cycle Assessment software that analyzes the environmental impact of each step in the supply chain. Using the example of a snowboard, Ali Kenney, global sustainability director at Burton, inputs where the wood comes from, all materials used, how much electricity is used for each processing step, and where it’s being made. Burton’s Austria factory uses 100% renewable energy, versus an option to manufacture in Colorado, which would source the majority of energy from coal.
“You’re getting all this research from your software so as a company you can actually identify the highest environmental impact of your product. That’s the big tipping point — doing that work,” Kenney said. She continued that companies can “guess with good intentions” but the software tools are instrumental to uncovering areas that require extra attention and measuring progress on a larger scale.
Through this process, Burton discovered that 37% of a snowboard’s weight is its wood core— one of the highest impact materials of that product. Now, one hundred percent of Burton’s snowboard cores use sustainably harvested wood through Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) rainforest alliance, an independent, non-profit founded in 1993 to promote responsible forest management. The criteria for a forest to be FSC certified spans environmental, social and economic benefits, such as compliance with the laws of the country, respecting the rights of indigenous peoples, and conserving the biological diversity and integrity of the forest.
Burton’s next steps are to recycle and upcycle as much content as possible (many of its retired snowboards end up as custom bar trays at local pubs around Vermont) and eventually design for end of life and disassembly. Burton’s bags and luggage priced over $200 are covered under lifetime warranty in which Burton will repair damaged goods free of charge, therefore lengthening the life of the product so it doesn’t need to be unnecessarily replaced.
Every company that investigates the environmental impact of its products discovers that there is no perfect answer, and new products require new solutions.
“We are meeting monthly as a supply chain department, ensuring the product we are currently developing is aligned with the most sustainable fabrics, and we are hitting internal goals as a company to ensure we are growing styles with sustainable attributes each season,” said Brianna Kilcullen, social responsibility and traceability manager at prAna. The pros and cons are rigorously examined for each new regenerative, recycled, or Bluesign certified material entering the supply chain to ensure it meets the highest standards—and the solution is not always black and white. When it comes to sourcing responsible down, prAna discovered that recycled material wasn’t the best choice after weighing several factors.
“Recycling is definitely a part of the sustainable model but it really depends on the current best practice around that raw material that dictates whether it is the right answer,” prAna’s Kilcullen said. “For example, we will be using 100% Responsible Down Standard (RDS) in our F16 line instead of using re-purposed (recycled) down in previous seasons due to the fact that we could not guarantee that the recycled down was obtained in alignment with the RDS standard and our animal welfare policy. So in that case, the recycled route did not make sense for that material and required a different approach that we considered the highest sustainable best practice.”
Patagonia’s wetsuit program was in development for eight years before releasing its first neoprene alternative to market in 2013. The initial offerings were made from a material derived from a desert shrub called guayale plant that’s native to the southwestern United States, mixed with limestone-based polychloroprene.
For Fall 2016, Patagonia introduces a new natural rubber material derived from the hevea rubber tree. Developed by Patagonia’s partners at Yulex and independently certified by FSC rainforest alliance to ensure that products are produced using environmentally responsible practices, the complete line of 21 high performance full wetsuits employ the neoprene-free Yulex material. In comparison to traditional neoprene wetsuits, Patagonia claims the new material is extremely durable and performs better. Plus, using natural rubber reduces the CO2 emissions required to produce traditional neoprene suits by up to 80 percent.
Patagonia’s path to creating a neoprene alternative wetsuit was a significant research and development project that may not have come to fruition if Patagonia was a company with quarterly earnings reports and quicker return on investment accountability to shareholders. But in the end, Jason McCaffrey, Patagonia’s global business unit director of surf division, said their trailblazing choices are paying off in staking the brand’s claim in the surf industry.
“To try and live up to the mission statement, we had to take a certain path to try and build the wetsuits. In doing so, if the only thing that people remember about Patagonia is that we try to build things for a reason, and we have this mission statement, that’s a win in itself,” McCaffrey said.
Previously, the apparel industry’s complex supply chain systems were invisible to the consumer. But in the internet age of information and transparency, consumers are doing more research before making purchases.
“I think the biggest mistake [companies] make is not genuinely caring and just being like, ‘We gotta do something about this green thing. What do we do?’ And then just make a tiny line of green products,” Kenney said. “Young people are getting smarter, and they can see right through that.”