Sustainable Apparel and the Need for Global Standards

On March 1, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition launched a new voluntary initiative by leading companies such as Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney, Patagonia, and Timberland. According to the New York Times, the coalition seeks to develop “…a comprehensive database of the environmental impacts of every manufacturer, component, and process in apparel production, with the aim of using that information to eventually give every garment a sustainability score.”

This initiative marks a turning point for the apparel industry, and offers promise that consumers will be able to make more informed purchasing decisions. This effort is laudable on its own merits. However, in addition, these companies are opening the window to what they don’t know. And in so doing, it is bound to raise some interesting questions, ones that will likely lead to the need for global environmental and social standards for product manufacture. For years, U.S. companies have had to compete with cheaper labor in China, India, and other countries. But are they competing on labor costs and other criteria at the detriment of environmental and social impacts?

In fact, what do we know about the environmental and social impacts caused by manufacturing operations in developing countries? The answer is not much. We do know that many used electronics are shipped from well-meaning companies, government agencies, and non-profits in the U.S. to developing nations to be recycled. It all sounded so good…until the Basel Action Network informed us that many of these operations polluted rivers and sickened unprotected workers. It is likely that the Sustainable Apparel Coalition will find similar operations in which their members are unsuspecting enablers of poor environmental and social practices.  As the New York Times reports, Americans spent nearly $340 billion last year on clothing and shoes, nearly all of which was made in other countries. 

The New York Times article begins with an image of blue dye and other chemicals floating downriver from textile mills in China. An inside photo shows a fabric dyeing factory in Mumbai, India, that appears to provide little to no protection of the environment and workers. Our values, as Americans, are embedded in our laws. We would not want those same practices to take place on American soil. Those who uphold our country’s values for our own people should ensure that their actions are not enabling practices that cause harm to others in far-away places. We should not be exporting jobs to other countries if we are not also requiring that products we buy from companies operating in these countries be made using the same environmental and worker safety standards that we require of companies operating here in the U.S.

Companies participating in sustainable business practices know that you either pay now or pay more later…in the form of health care for sick or injured workers, cleanup of pollution, and replacement of poorly made products.  The Sustainable Apparel Coalition is off to a good start.

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