"Seventy-five to 90 percent of a product's environmental impact is determined the product development stage," says Kevin Myette, director of product and supply chain sustainability at outdoor gear and clothing retailer REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.).
Given that fact, it's extremely important for product designers to have access to information about the sustainability of materials when making decisions about which materials to use for new products.
For example, which do you think is environmentally more damaging: wool or polyester? Intuition might point you to rank wool as the more sustainable product, because it is natural. But, the processing of wool uses chemical washes, and wool as a material in apparel requires much more washing and energy use after purchase. Thus, although polyester uses more energy during manufacture, its lifetime energy usage is lower. Even better, polyester can be recycled. Nike used this information to design uniforms made from recycled polyester for the 2012 European Cup soccer championships, thus earning them high marks on sustainability.
A tool that's helping the apparel industry with this problem is called the Higg Index, which lets manufacturers and brands score the environmental impacts of their garments across the apparel life cycle (materials, manufacturing, packaging, transportation, use, and end-of-life).
Getting industry-wide agreement on the metrics has been key. "As our CEO says, 'sustainability is a team sport,'" Myette told me. "We've been working collaboratively with partners and competitors alike, pre-competitive, to develop the language and metrics of sustainability."
Internally, to help its product designers make the right choices, REI implemented Dassault Systèmes' ENOVIA, a product lifecycle management system that gives its designers a dashboard view of how materials rank across the lifecycle for sustainability.
Myette is encouraging REI's suppliers to use the system, as well using a dyeing process that requires no water and using patterns that minimize scrap waste. "Five percent of our landfills are just textiles, apparel," Myette says. Avoiding scrap material and encouraging recycling of apparel is vital for reducing this waste. Few consumers know that it takes 10 times more energy to produce textiles than to produce glass. Greater awareness could spur consumers to demand retailers offer recycling of their synthetic fabrics.