Global apparel and footwear brands aim to help their contract manufacturers drive sustainability for textiles on a global scale. But how is sustainability defined? In the textile industry, it includes the product and the resources that go into making it. 3rd parties help manufacturers comply and continuously improve to meet the requirements of the global brand customers. Audits and verifications are performed by the 3rd party to have snapshots of the state of a manufacturer. Recommendations help the manufacturer incrementally add best practices into day-to-day production operations. The best practices can come from what has been observed at state-of-the art manufacturers, best available technologies, and simply according to high standards set by the brands and retailers.
The top 3rd parties that drive supply chain sustainability include:
- Bluesign System Partnership
- Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index – Facility Environmental Module (FEM)
- Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals Program (ZDHC)
The brands and retailers care about these 3rd party evaluators because they provide an outside perspective regarding sustainability for textiles. They act as a neutral guide between the brand and the manufacturer. Additionally, each of these 3rd parties carry subject matter expertise that go beyond the scope of core business purposes of the brands and retailers. It is a level up for performance within the global supply chain.
The brands gain confidence in their supply chain and sourcing decisions with support of these 3rd parties.
Bluesign is a step forward into the safest textile chemicals and dyestuffs available on the market.
Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg FEM spotlights attention to reduction goals for resource efficiency.
The Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals program drives the initiative for cleaner wastewater.
Bluesign System Partnership
Bluesign pre-screens raw material inventories of textile dye and finishing factories for strict Input Stream Management. They analyze Technical Data Sheets and Safety Data Sheets of the chemical suppliers. Each dyestuff, auxiliary, and base chemical is rated blue, gray or black according to substance sensitivity to skin. Blue and gray rated substances are approved for use, and blacklisted chemicals are recommended for phase out. The ratings can change at any time. It is an interactive screening process and dyehouses are notified of changes. Bluesign’s goal is to protect humans and the environment.
The Bluesign screening is considered the best available in the industry for:
- Elimination of restricted substances in the supply chain, like nonylphenols and heavy metals.
- Support on R&D projects that can involve new chemicals entering the market.
- Recommendations on hot industry issues, like wastewater discharge and occupational health and safety.
The certification is good for three years. As part of the partnership, Bluesign also gives advice on proper documentation protocols for Legal Permits and Environmental Management Systems. They also provide an analytical report and clear corrective actions for the manufacturers. Having this Bluesign partnership helps manufacturers win positive points with the global brands as a standard, good business practice.
Sustainable Apparel Coalition – Higg Index – Facility Environmental Module (FEM)
The Higg FEM was developed by global brands and retailers, as well as several other 3rd party supporters of supply chain transparency. The module has a boat-load of questions for manufacturers to answer on an annual basis. Literally hundreds!
The key categories of questions include:
|– Legal Permits
|– Waste Water
|– Environmental Management Strategy
|– Air Quality
|– Energy Use
|– Chemical Management
|– Water Use
|– Waste Management
The series of questions can instill a standard way of record-keeping for manufacturers. This means a manufacturer in Asia will provide standard information in a similar manner to a manufacturer in the Americas. The brands and retailers can easily analyze the data, and use it to inform decision-making in the future. It can be helpful as they develop sustainability priorities in their supply chains.
Overall, the manufacturers receive a score out of 100 points based on the number of questions that have responses of Yes, Partial Yes, or No.
To verify documentation, the SAC trained verifiers perform an on-site visit to manufacturers in a time-sensitive nature. These verifiers provide advice for improvements, and the corrective action requests are in a timeline of one year. The responsibility to act for improvements is in the hands of the manufacturer, but can be impacted by less-forward thinking regulations of a country. Additionally, some recommendations can mean costly infrastructure upgrades, which can be a longer-term project that is not reflected on the scoring system.
Some limitations to this Higg FEM tool definitely exist. The user interface changes from year to year requires tech-savvy employees within manufacturing to manage the data and access to the portal, the data entry into the portal is not automatically output into a comprehensive report for the manufacturer, the data input may still not be viewable to the verifier, the brands and retailers, and a few Chemical Management questions do not align with screenings of other third parties, like Bluesign.
Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC)
The ZDHC prioritizes attention to Down Stream Management. The ZDHC Requirements can be found under the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index FEM – Wastewater Section. ZDHC and SAC popped out in the same decade with SAC gaining traction earlier, and making it possible for ZDHC objectives to be adaptable on global scale.
The ZDHC has the goal of eliminating hazardous substances in wastewater. Textile dye and finishing houses commit 100% of their attention to quality of production, and now equal attention is required for the quality of wastewater discharged. Bureau Veritas, SGS, and Intertek are a few testing labs throughout the world gaining the responsibility of collecting wastewater samples at manufacturers in addition to conducting the testing analysis. Advanced water treatment technologies are available to help manufacturers meet the water quality goals, though highly trained experts from an engineering and ecological perspective are critical, locally. The testing requirement can be once or twice a year, and a time period of corrective action is in place. Continual non-compliance of ZDHC wastewater quality standards can ultimately mean:
- Closer collaboration between the textile dyehouse and the waste water treatment plant is needed to determine what processes cause underperformance
- Consideration of an infrastructure investment for advanced treatment technology
- Loss of brand and retailer business due to non-compliance
In the long run, the feedback that these 3rd parties provide in the first quarter of the 21st century can be invaluable for the future business opportunities. The recommendations can easily push business-as-usual off a cliff. Simply because the sustainability expectations can be stricter than country specific regulations. Shifts in consumer preferences, efficient technologies, and resource availability is at the top of the minds of these 3rd parties. At the end of the day, the brands that encourage sustainability manufacturers to gain the opportunity to tell a transparency story to their customers.