Eco Working Group puts the focus on a sustainability index as a first step

OIA's Eco Working Group (EWG) held a meeting in Boulder, Colo., from May 13-15, that brought together 90 industry members representing 50 outdoor industry companies. The goal of the meeting was to take the first substantive steps toward fleshing out what an industry eco index might measure and how.
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OIA's Eco Working Group (EWG) held a meeting in Boulder, Colo., from May 13-15, that brought together 90 industry members representing 50 outdoor industry companies. The goal of the meeting was to take the first substantive steps toward fleshing out what an industry eco index might measure and how.

"It is important for companies to change sooner rather than later," Joe McSwiney, president of Cascade Designs, told SNEWS®. "We've been preparing to tackle these issues at Cascade Designs, and sometimes I feel like we're inventing the wheel in parallel with everyone else. Having one common index is not only going to save companies time and resources, but is going to give us a common language and framework to share best practices and eventually to communicate with the consumer."

Prior to the meeting, during the first week in May, the 35 voting members of the EWG cast their ballots in support of an internally focused index as the group's first task. Members decided that internal evaluation, and getting the house in order was the first logical step by the working group, and needed to come before going public with a consumer facing label. Also in early May, the executive committee restructured the working group, eliminating the benchmarking and framework subcommittees, and adding footwear, apparel and equipment subcommittees to better reflect natural industry market segments.

During the Boulder meeting, subcommittees in breakout sessions independently arrived at the same general parameters for a metric. Committees agreed a metric must be transparent, it has to work for small and large organizations, it must be based on shared information, built upon best practices, must be open source, and it has to drive continuous improvement. There was strong support for the metric setting a baseline and measuring improvement over time, and an index that would take into account best available technology, and evolve as technology evolves.

Most importantly, EWG clearly laid out the next steps, including bringing on a professional project manager, or convener, before Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2008 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

"We need a neutral party with critical expertise in process and dedicated resources in stakeholder and project management," said Kevin Myette, EWG chairman and director of product integrity and R&D for REI.

It was decided that EWG subcommittees will write an RFP, and submit it to the three groups under consideration: Businesses for Social Responsibility, Green Blue, and the Zero Waste Alliance.

Fundraising was also at the top of the to-do list, as well as tapping into existing standards, like Timberland's Eco Nutrition label, which have been indexed and analyzed for the past year by the former benchmarking committee. Sharing best practices was also high on participant agendas, and there was support for greening packaging as a first step. Though developing tools to evaluate and streamline packaging won't have the biggest environmental impact, it may help engage retailers and draw consumer attention to industry sustainability initiatives.

In order to keep the momentum going, footwear, apparel and equipment subcommittees each named a chair and vice-chair who, with the executive committee, will continue to drive the work of the group until the next full meeting at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market.

"This is a global and ubiquitous cause," said Ann Obenchain, vice president of member services and marketing for OIA, and EWG executive committee member. "Everyone wants to be engaged, and we're constantly evaluating how to keep the process efficient and respond to our members."

To this end, OIA has hired the Cahn Group, experts in community social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability issues. Cahn principles have worked with Levis, the Gap and Reebok on similar issues. They will manage both the Eco and Fair Labor working groups for OIA, and represent OIA in the group executive committees. Cahn will advise OIA on how these groups fit into the global landscape of the outdoor industry, how they fit under the umbrella of the Outdoor Industry Association, and will explore opportunities for funding and staffing.

Anyone interested in participating in the working group should visit www.oia-eco.org/blog.

SNEWS® VIEW: The tasks of the EWG are ambitious. First, it's striving to lessen the environmental footprint of a diverse industry whose manufacturers often don't know what the inputs and wastes are even a few steps down their supply chain, and some are still afraid to ask. Second, it's trying to figure out what to measure (energy use, percentage renewable materials, end-of-life take back) and how, as well as decide how far back into the supply chain it should analyze. Then, it plans to take that information and create an index that will be widely adoptable and fair. During the process, the EWG needs to involve the right stakeholders, even those, like retailers, who have not yet recognized that their input is critical to the process. Set this against the backdrop of a marketplace where green claims are becoming increasingly meaningless and confusing, consumers are losing trust, and retailers are caught in the middle.

Without a standardized cross-industry metric to measure products' impacts, it's impossible for consumers to differentiate products in their favorite outdoor store. On the factory side, without standards, it's hard for manufacturers and suppliers to make targeted capital investments. Unless it takes focused steps, the industry will lose the opportunity to do the right thing and lower the footprint of its products. And let's not forget… in the long term, this is something we have to do to remain viable as an industry.

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