REI rolls out first-of-its-kind sustainability requirement that will affect every brand in its stores

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The clothing industry is increasingly embracing a green agenda that has some household-name companies putting policies and processes in place that will benefit the environment as well as their business.

One is going a step further. Brands that want to have their merchandise on the sales floor at REI Co-op have to abide by a new set of sustainability standards that one executive at the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) says could have a wide-reaching, positive impact on the environment.

REI, an outdoor retailer celebrating its 80th anniversary with more than 16 million members, announced the new guidelines on Monday, and said they apply to every brand and product the company sells. The standards were created using the input of dozens of brands, and will be available to any other retailer who would like to use them.

Among the standards: REI would prefer a fair trade certification, “which promotes safe, healthy working conditions and helps empower communities”; restrictions on certain chemicals, including flame-retardant chemicals that are commonly used on camping shelters; and a responsible wool standard that promotes better animal welfare and land management practices.

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“This is the first time I’ve seen a retailer create standards like this for all of their suppliers. That’s one of the main ways that it’s different from what other retailers are doing.”

Adam Siegel, senior vice president, research, innovation and sustainability, Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA)

Some, like the code of conduct for the supply chain, take effect immediately, while others, like dropping sunscreens with oxybenzone, which bleaches coral reefs, will begin in 2020.

“This is the first time I’ve seen a retailer create standards like this for all of their suppliers,” Adam Siegel, senior vice president of research, innovation and sustainability at RILA, told MarketWatch. “That’s one of the main ways that it’s different from what other retailers are doing.”

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Sustainability policies are somewhat new, Siegel said, and many companies are experimenting to see what works. Often, these standards help a company’s balance sheet, reducing the cost of energy, waste and materials.

Moreover, there’s a reputation boost.

“Every corporate actor wants to have an inspirational, engaging brand,” Siegel said. “This is the next evolution of that.”

Earlier this month, Gant, a clothing brand dating back to 1949, announced the launch of Gant Beacons Project, a sustainability initiative that begins with a line of shirts for men and women that are made with Tech Prep, which contains “upcycled” plastic collected from the ocean.

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Plastic in the world’s waters has gained attention in recent years and more organizations are working to clean up debris littering the oceans. Much has been written about phenomena, such as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a collection of trash that’s three times the size of France and is floating between Hawaii and California weighing 80,000 metric tons. Birds and marine life are at risk of being trapped and dying and the trash and marine plastic can find ways into the human food supply.

For the new collection, Gant partnered with Seaqual, a group that takes plastic collected from the sea and turns it into a polyester filament that can be made into fabric. The shirts, available in-store and online for $165, have the look and feel of fabric, while incorporating features like stretch and moisture wicking.

According to Brian Grevy, Gant’s chief marketing officer, the shirts are the most sustainable in the company’s history. Buttons and packaging will also be made from recycled material.

“Our mission is to take oil-based components and transform them to upcycled materials,” Grevy told MarketWatch. “We don’t think anyone has a choice to do their part,” Grevy said. “We think the full industry should take responsibility.”

Levi Strauss & Co., has launched a process called Project F.L.X. that uses lasers to not only cut down on the time it takes to add the finishes to the company’s jeans from months to days in some cases, but also eliminates the use of many chemicals.

“F.L.X allows us to manufacture a cleaner jean, eliminates chemicals from the supply chain, and in some cases it actually creates the opportunity for water savings,” said Bart Sights, vice president of technical innovation at Levi Strauss & Co.

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The company has made a commitment to reach zero hazardous chemical discharge by 2020, and this new process is a step in that direction. It’s also a boon for the company’s manufacturing process.

“We were looking for an alternative to an oxidizer and while weighing alternatives, it occurred to us that this could greatly increase agility and create a radically different operating model,” Sights said.

This new process is helping Levi tackle two industry hurdles, said Levi Strauss & Co.’s Chief Executive Chip Bergh in a statement: the need to quickly respond to consumer trends and make manufacturing more sustainable.

H&M Hennes & Mauritz HMB, +1.05% Gap Inc. GPS, +3.06%   and Allbirds, the Silicon Valley favorite, are just some of the other fashion brands that are also becoming more eco-friendly by making clothing out of recycled material, sourcing materials in ways that are more environmentally sound, and taking other measures.

When you consider the millions of consumers, hundreds of stores, and thousands of factories around the world, RILA’s Siegel says these efforts are important.

“There’s potential for significant global impact,” he said.

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