The sustainability movement within the architecture and design community is so firmly entrenched that many of us—especially those new to the field—forget that it wasn’t always this way.
During the six years that I worked in the design industry, I was often frustrated by what I felt was a surface-level approach many had with respect to sustainability. Were we chasing LEED points, or truly trying to reduce the environmental footprint of our projects and products? Were we concerned with real product transparency or simply a certification label?
While I still feel these are valid questions, working
in the apparel and footwear industry for the last year and a half has given me an entirely new perspective.
First and foremost, I have a newfound appreciation for the leadership the A&D community has exhibited in the sustainability movement. This industry began to collaboratively measure and standardize
sustainability way back in 1998, when the first
version of LEED was released. Today’s LEED rating
system is both more sophisticated and more
ubiquitous, with the certification becoming widely known outside of the building industry.
In contrast, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition was not formed until 2011. Its equivalent to LEED—called the Higg Index—was not released
for apparel until last year; the footwear and equipment versions of the Higg Index are still under development. Furthermore, the Higg Index is not yet consumer-facing and likely won’t be for at least another five years.
So why has the A&D community led the global sustainability movement while others, like the apparel and footwear industries, have lagged behind? This is an important question, because it gets to the heart of what all of us in the sustainability field grapple with: understanding the drivers of sustainability.
One key driver is leadership. In the mid-1990s, several thought leaders in the A&D industry emerged on the topic of sustainability. This group included corporate titans like Ray Anderson and entrepreneurs like David Gottfried. Their visions of a more sustainable future led to the creation of the U.S. Green Building Council, the development of the LEED rating system and, eventually, product-level developments like NSF-140 and Environmental Product Declarations (commonly known as EPDs).
There are a few visionaries in the apparel world who have pushed the industry to make the progress it has. For example, Yvon Chouinard, founder and CEO of Patagonia, was instrumental in the creation of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, and his company has been a true leader in product transparency. That said, until recently, there has been a general lack of leadership in pushing the apparel industry toward sustainability. Without key thought leaders driving home the message of change, the momentum needed to make progress has been hard to build.
Of course, for there to be true progress toward sustainability, there has to be a demand for green products. This is where the building industry has a clear advantage over the apparel and footwear industries. Because architecture and interior design are driven by business-to-business transactions, institutional policies and requirements often become the catalyst for change.
For example, the purchasing arm of the federal government, the General Services Administration (GSA), uses product specifications to drive sustainability through its supply chain, as well as to meet the goals laid out in several Executive Orders.
Other large institutions and private companies also have green building and purchasing goals that directly affect architects, interior designers and product manufacturers. This is incredibly important because it provides clarity and direction to all parties,
as well as a clear business case for designing more sustainable buildings and/or manufacturing more sustainable products. Even the most skeptical C-suite executive will be convinced to “go green” if end-users or A&D firms require it in order to be specified on a project.
Apparel and footwear brands have struggled to make the business case for sustainability, in part because the demand for green products is not clear cut in the consumer sector. Do consumers care about sustainability? Are they willing to pay more for greener products? We do not have definitive
answers to these questions. That’s not to say that there isn’t a business case for sustainability in this industry, but there is not a direct correlation between sustainability and top-line sales growth the way there is in the A&D world.
green supply chains
Finally, supply chain complexity plays a huge role in driving the sustainability agenda. I did not have an appreciation for how complex supply chains could be until I started working in the apparel industry.
The vast majority of the industry outsources manufacturing to Asia and Latin America, and the factory base changes continuously. This creates many barriers to sustainability that interior product manufacturers don’t generally face because they manufacture internally.
The first and most obvious barrier lies in access to information (or perhaps more accurately, the lack thereof). For example, calculating the carbon footprint of carpet is generally easier than it is for a t-shirt. Why? Apparel products can be made in more than 10 outsourced factories, sometimes on multiple continents, so gathering and verifying environmental data is challenging, to say the least.
Outsourced manufacturing and the complexity
of those supply chains can also be a barrier to implementing sustainable processes. Apparel brands have little control over the environmental practices of their suppliers above and beyond compliance with the law. This is gradually changing as the industry comes together to develop standards for factory environmental performance, however, without direct control over these factories, the progress is slow.
In contrast, the manufacture of interior products is not usually outsourced. This business model allows manufacturers to more directly measure the environmental impacts of their products and to make changes to reduce that impact.
So what does this all mean? The A&D community has taken advantage of the thought leadership, the demand for sustainable products and the owned-manufacturing business model to lead the entire business sector towards sustainability. Other sectors, including apparel, food, manufacturing and
electronics are now learning how to be sustainable
from the building industry. So the next time you feel yourself getting frustrated with the lack of progress or the complexity of the issues we are facing, remember that your work goes beyond your particular project or market. As leaders in the sustainability movement, you’re blazing a path for the rest of us, and we are grateful for it.
Kim Matsoukas is the sustainability manager at Vans. Before coming to Vans, Matsoukas spent six years leading the sustainability efforts at Bentley. She speaks on a
variety of sustainability topics, including product
sustainability, governance and employee engagement.