Tools for Strategic Sustainability
By Ben Mead, Managing Director of Hohenstein Institute America
Terms like “responsible sourcing,” “traceability,” and “transparency” sound good, but how can they be implemented to make a tangible impact? With so many factors to consider, creating strategies to restrict harmful substances or ensure fair labor requires resources and trust. Fortunately, no one needs to start from scratch or hope for the best. There are multiple organizations that welcome collaboration at all levels. In fact, many initiatives complement each other.
Before choosing from existing tools, it’s important to evaluate goals. Are you implementing a restricted substance list (RSL), minimizing ecological impact, building transparency, verifying claims? Because of the size of the challenge, you won’t solve it all at once. Find the greatest risks in your supply chain and choose tools to address them.
More Sustainable Sourcing
In a sea of sustainability claims, comparable choices based on third-party verified criteria are indispensable.
The Oeko-Tex Buying Guide grants access to more than 14,500 companies offering countless certified materials, accessories, chemicals, finished goods, and services. It not only serves as a tool for finding pre-qualified partners worldwide, but also being found by others. Best of all, this resource is open to all, free and online.
What goes into factories must come out—as product or waste. An estimated 4,000 to 8,000 chemicals, in countless formulations, go into apparel and footwear alone. Some chemicals can pose a risk to workers or air and waterways during manufacture, to users of the finished goods, or to the environment at the product’s end of life. Exposure levels and user sensitivities may increase impacts. Constantly changing regulations and technologies complicate efforts.
Rigorous certification systems give manufacturers and brands reliable control over input chemicals and help ensure that ever-changing legal requirements are met. Eco Passport by Oeko-Tex screens chemicals, dyes, and auxiliaries through RSL/MRSL checks and analytical testing. It limits or eliminates harmful chemicals of concern to enable production of safer products. Eco Passport aligns with industry initiatives for safer chemistry, such as ZDHC’s (Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals) Roadmap to Zero.
Monitoring, benchmarking, and improving processes is key to lowering impact and creating transparency. This requires safe and ethical working conditions, proper chemical use, and quality and environmental management.
Several programs exist for independent monitoring. Tools such as Business Social Compliance Initiative’s social reports and Fair Wear’s audits or certifications from Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production or Social Accountability International help ensure social compliance. ISO14001 and 9001 standards certify environmental and quality management while health and safety management can be certified through ISO 45001 or OHSAS 18001.
Each of these programs can be used toward requirements for STeP by Oeko-Tex, which certifies sustainable and socially responsible production through assessments and audits. Progress toward goals set for suppliers can be monitored, knowing that minimum exclusion criteria have been met by all certified facilities (e.g. no child labor). By harnessing wholistic, independent certifications, brands can reduce their own auditing efforts while improving efficiency and reducing the audit burdens on suppliers.
Output Control and Communication
Reputations are on the line. Consumers want to do the right thing, but they’re busy and skeptical. Trustworthy certification systems use traceable testing systems to reduce risk and ensure consistent quality. Third-party labels empower customers to find responsible products and verify claims.
Standard 100 and Leather Standard by Oeko-Tex certifications test for harmful substances on products, materials, and accessories throughout the supply chain. The RSL is annually updated to incorporate health data, consider intended use and stay ahead of global laws. Groups like Oeko-Tex, Afirm and the American Apparel and Footwear Association are aligning their RSLs to make it easier for brands to track compliance.
The Supply Chain Mapping Guide from the Outdoor Industry Association recognizes the direct link between supply chain traceability and product stewardship. Textile Exchange publishes standards and best practices regarding farming, materials, processing, traceability, and product end-of-life.
The transparent Made In Green by Oeko-Tex label combines harmful substance safety and certified production into a unique product ID for a traceable supply chain. Many of the industry’s tools can be used in combination for product stewardship.
Greenwashing has created even more skepticism of unverified claims. Testing aids sourcing decisions and builds compelling sustainability stories backed by independent proof.
Microplastic fiber analysis can produce real data such as size and count to develop materials that shed less. Testing biodegradability in valid conditions quantifies the effect on surrounding soil and groundwater. Organic cotton requires GMO testing for traceability.
We’re All in This Together
Creating a strategy from scratch would be a daunting challenge. But you’re not alone. Our industry has already created systems to protect people, the planet, and reputations.
For more than 70 years, Hohenstein, an independent testing and research institute, has been dedicated to improving the human-textile-environment interaction through standard and customized testing, certification, training, and product development programs. Hohenstein.US/Sustainability
In 1992, Hohenstein co-founded the Oeko-Tex Association, which has since grown to 18 member institutes globally. Oeko-Tex sets rigorous, scientifically based standards to test and certify products and processes throughout the supply chain, from chemical products and manufacturing processes to consumer product labeling.