Four Steps to a Greener Brand

September 5, 2017

Do you aspire to green your brand? Be forewarned: It’s challenging, as Kerri McKenzie and her colleagues discovered. McKenzie researched, developed and sourced materials for the outdoor gear retailer Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) at its head office in Vancouver. Four lessons from her experience can help you green your supply chain with more reward than headache.

During her thirty-year career McKenzie has seen poor mill practices. Early on she visited a mill in Taiwan.

“There was this guy in rubber boots. There’s water on the floor and he’s carrying buckets of dyestuff. When you work with powders, it’s in the air, it’s in your ears, hair, everything. He was just walking along with buckets sloshing about with this chemistry and tipping it into machines,”

It wasn’t only inside the mills that McKenzie witnessed detrimental practices. “I’ve seen bright green, blue, red, yellow rivers. People are bathing in there, and they’re getting their drinking water.”

McKenzie has also seen the flip side, such as at a denim mill in India. “Indigo dying is fairly toxic. At the end-of-pipe, they had a water filtration system. The water was so clean there were fish living in it,” said McKenzie. Here, a typically detrimental dying process was releasing what appeared to be clean water.

But how does someone sourcing textiles, like McKenzie, confirm the process really is more environmentally responsible? And how do consumers, who may never visit a mill, trust a brand’s sustainability claims?

Secure reputable third-party certification

A reputable third-party gives a brand the necessary oversight. MEC has partnered with a third-party certification program called bluesign to provide assurance to its staff and members.

Bluesign is dedicated to improving the sustainability of the textile industry across the textile supply chain from chemical producers to clothing retailers. Other Vancouver area clothing companies also rely on bluesign to help green their supply chain, including Arc’teryx, Lululemon, and Boardroom Eco Apparel.

Does a reputable third-party certification program exist in your sector? Talk with your industry associations and competitors to learn about sector-specific options or explore a general sustainable business certification, such as Certified B Corporation (B Corp).

Show foot-draggers the damage they’re causing

Kerri McKenzie

Certification provides industry standards and transparency but McKenzie also had to convince other staff that it was worthwhile to pursue. Designers were one of McKenzie’s biggest hurdles.

When designers choose fabric they have to meet a lot of criteria, including performance, affordability, and aesthetics. Requiring environmental criteria further constrains and frustrates designers, especially if the technology to make an envisioned design bluesign-approved doesn’t yet exist. “Bluesign creates guard rails. You have a tool box and this is all you can use,” said McKenzie.

To convince MEC designers of the importance of greening their brand McKenzie took them to a mill in India. “We were standing in this big room with dye machines, chemistry, water, coal power and fire. It was remarkable, and this [designer] stood there with her mouth open. She looked at me and she said ‘I get it, I get it.’ You have to see it. You have to feel it. You have to breathe it in,” said McKenzie.

Commit to a date-stamped and measurable goal

For five years McKenzie and her colleagues worked hard to bring bluesign-approved materials to MEC, but they weren’t making significant progress. That changed in 2013 when David Labistour, MEC’s CEO, set a lofty goal for all materials used in MEC-brand apparel be bluesign-approved by 2017. Leadership from the top of the organization and a measureable goal, with a deadline, gave McKenzie the support she needed to stand up to opposition.

Don’t waver

In Japan, for example, many of the mills resisted certification. They felt their regulations were strict enough. McKenzie was very consistent with her message that materials had to be bluesign. Finally, she told them MEC would phase them out if they aren’t bluesign-approved. It wasn’t an easy choice.

“That was pretty scary because we had to find alternative sources for very, very technical products.” Japanese mill orders dropped off dramatically but today MEC is back in Japan. Japan’s four largest mills are now bluesign system partners.

To-date, 87 percent of materials for MEC-label products are bluesign-approved. This achievement is due in large part to MEC’s goal and McKenzie’s persistence. We’ll have to wait until 2018 to confirm MEC has achieved its 2017 goal of 100% bluesign but it’s well on its way.

Now, it’s your turn. Start putting these four lessons into motion today to experience the satisfaction of successfully greening your brand

Editor note: Kerri McKenzie is now a Textile Development Specialist at Arc’teryx

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