A year ago, bluesign's CEO Peter Waeber held a press conference at the ispo trade show in Munich, Germany, with a smattering of curious journalists in the room who had never heard of his company.
bluesign, he patiently explained while flanked by representatives from MEC and two suppliers, is a Swiss company dedicated to addressing health and safety atrocities throughout the entire textile manufacturing and selling chain. He has been establishing its plan and making industry contacts at bluesign since 2000, a demonstration of his trademark Swiss patience, thoroughness and, in this case, confidence.
"It's a slow process," he told SNEWS® at that time. Waeber knew bluesign's time was coming.
"I have a vision and a mission," he said. "We had a vision to bring something easier to the market…. I know we can do it in a better way; however, it's not easy to motivate the chemical industry."
Time is now
Twelve months later, bluesign's time has come. Companies are being motivated, difficult or not. bluesign has more than quadrupled its membership, albeit still only 10 brands; had a 50-percent stake in the company acquired in July 2008 by Swiss SGS (www.sgs.com), a 200-year-old inspection, verification, testing and certification company; and the "bluefinder," a database for its members of processes and chemicals, will be relaunched by March 2009.
But with no time to rest, Waeber trots the globe to push membership and support. He prowled the aisles at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in January 2009, moving from meeting to meeting, and he received a Top 25 honor as a 2009 SNEWS Power Player (Click here to see his interview and photo in a Jan. 19, 2009, SNEWS story.) Always understated, Waeber paused a moment at the show to show an edge of a smile about the award, but quickly moved on to his next meeting -- and to continue work on bluesign's future that could change the world's environment.
"We have a lot of projects," he told SNEWS. "The companies that are now members realize and they also know sustainability isn't happening overnight.
"But it's happening," he said. "We can talk and talk and talk, but now we have to take action. I'm not pessimistic at all."
All action, not just talk
bluesign (www.bluesign.com), which Waeber spells using a lower case "b," tackles the problem of environmentally unfriendly manufacturing at its root, from air emission and waste water to chemical processes and components, using systems only a long-time textile scientist like Waeber -- but one with an environmental passion -- could create. Waeber is also a chemist and outdoor enthusiast who has studied economics. He has worked at various textile mills and, before starting bluesign, was the technical director and a member of the board at Schoeller Textil AG, also in Switzerland, where the concept was born.
Said Jeff Crook, product manager at MEC, who participated in the conference at ispo a year ago, "They're focused on solutions."
"The foundation of the system is economically sustainable," Crook said. "It has to be economically sustainable for everybody in the production chain."
Another participant, Roger Yeh, president of Everest Textile of Taiwan, put it more simply, "I trust Peter."
How it works
According to the company, the bluesign standard's five principles are:
>> resource productivity
>> consumer safety
>> air emission
>> water emission
>> occupational health and safety
This "gives suppliers, manufacturers, retailers, brands and consumers the good feeling of having done everything possible for the environment, health and safety," a company statement said.
There are various components -- all rather precise albeit a bit complicated -- designed to link closely the manufacturing and selling chain, create buy-in from all sides, and give each a tool to find out more to operate in an environmentally friendlier way while also being more transparent and gaining more knowledge about others in the chain.
First, there are three levels of participants:
>> Supporters are companies from the chemical and machine industry.
>> Partners are mills, manufacturers and converters.
>> Members (also known as users) are brands and retailers.
The most recent members are REI, which announced its membership on Jan. 20 and Deuter on Jan. 31. Others include Patagonia and MEC, both of which were the first, joining in May 2007; The North Face, Vaude, Helly Hansen, Hagloefs, Eileen Fisher and Boardroom/Eco Apparel.
Then, there are three systems provided by bluesign for information and transparency:
>> bluetool, a source of information for the chemical industry.
>> bluefinder, the guide for manufacturers to source better materials and mills.
>> blueguide, still in development, a tool for all member brands and retailers to help them choose better environmental sources.
Only a year away from celebrating its 10th anniversary, bluesign has goals, big goals, for the year, including 100 percent growth and opening a hub in Hong Kong. Waeber and his small team will collect a lot of frequent flyer miles to get there since partners, supporters and members don't just sign papers to join. bluesign, with a vision that reads "one world -- one standard," must in fact do lengthy inspections and analysis on-site at each potential partner and supporter, a process which can take up to a year, he said. When completed, the applicants get a thick report with recommendations for changes and a list of bad components or methods (black), a list of mediocre ones (gray) and a list of good ones (blue). Being a bluesign participant doesn't necessarily mean your company is perfect since the fact-finding systems (finder or guide) show what part of a supplier is good and what is not so good, literally grading the firm like a report card.
"It's a process," he said.
There is no way around this kind of detail because, as Waeber told SNEWS, "It would get around if it were bull."
With most of the world calling these types of practices "green," Waeber went with blue. He said blue is a more holistic color -- think of the blue sky and the blue sea, he said.
"Green washing is not what we are all about," Waeber said. "We want to bring solutions on the table."
SNEWS® View: Certainly, bluesign is a business since companies pay for the report cards and screening, but in the end the process is obsessively detailed and will give all segments of the supply chain better information when they make choices. Although addressing the textile chain, such an organization -- if not different divisions of bluesign in the future -- could certainly address other segments, from hardgoods such as stoves to the likes of fitness equipment -- the manufacturing to pour steel and form plastics can't be great for our environment. With the forward-thinking and long-term thinking, bluesign could be paving the way for a more environmentally sound planet for our children and their children.