Is the Eco Index a good way to measure sustainability?


The Outdoor Industry Association (OIA, home to such brands as Adidas, Levi’s, and Nike), recently launched its benchmarking Eco Index worldwide, hoping to cement it (and itself) as the leading sustainability measurement tool for apparel and more. In fact, this group clearly has its sights set on taking this tool beyond its own industry boundaries.

Although the site is gaining momentum while still in beta, it is not moving fast enough for some. The folks at Timberland have a competing rating system called the Green Index they launched in 2007, complete with a snazzy website and social media-friendly branding. Getting end purchasers to recognize and use the index is crucial. I discussed this with Tom De Blasis, Global Design Director for Nike Soccer, while he was on a road trip recently. He observed ”the third party nature of the Eco Index can cut through the corporate noise and terminology clutter that has lead to consumer confusion.”

The products within the OIA are diverse, from footwear to filters for water, all aimed at getting us out from behind our desks and into the great outdoors. But when you dig deeper into this toolset, you can see how it could be applied to a number of different industries.

I asked Kim Coupounas about it. She’s the Chief Sustainability Officer of GoLite, past chairman of the OIA board, and a current member of OIA’s Eco Working Group, which launched the tool. Coupounas explained “the Eco Index is completely open-source and available for use by all companies, not just those in the outdoor industry. While it’s rooted in the outdoor industry, it has the ability to be applied within most other industries and sectors.”

While companies can score points for fairly dubious “improvements” – Levi’s gets points for telling me to wash my jeans in cold water to save energy (duh) – the majority of the categories for scoring points are environmentally solid. For many companies, the Eco Index will become a serious motivational tool, applicable to everyone from the CEO to the unpaid intern. Dan Marriner, a designer for Element Skateboards, commented, “for companies that have been performing well in terms of environmental sustainability, the Eco Index is a positive motivation to continue fine tuning the way products are made. For others it is a kick in the pants that will either motivate them, or separate them from an increasingly conscious market.”

But the version 1.0 of the Eco Index falls short is one major area, when looking at the human rights aspect of our supply chains. As we all know, you measure what you want to improve. The Eco Index is the best collaborative effort I’ve seen to date that measures eco-related areas ranging from land use intensity to how the chemistry of the products interacts with human beings. But it falls short of measuring additional impacts on the humans involved in the production process.

If one defines true sustainability as having components related to profit, planet, and people, then the Eco Index is well on its way. For the next version of the Eco Index, I’d love to see the human rights impact better measured, perhaps by marrying it to an existing system such as Transfair USA’s Fair Trade certification or an updated version of OIA’s own Fair Labor measurement system. Then we could truly call this index “sustainable” for the profit, planet, and people.

How do you define “sustainability” in your industry?