Center Fellows Go To Vietnam to Research Apparel Sector
I am pleased to have two guest bloggers post today. Duke graduate students Britsy Neale and Tatyana Brown who are Fellows of the Center were funded to travel to Vietnam to research the global apparel sector and represent the Center at the global meeting of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.
Whether you call it Saigon or Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s largest city is a colorful and chaotic kaleidoscope that piques each of your senses. Not a city for faint of heart pedestrians, mopeds and motorcycles outnumber cars on the road and blare their presence in a constant cacophony of horns as they whiz by at breakneck speeds. On the bustling sidewalks, vendors and store owners jostle for elbow room, all the while calling out to passersby, offering souvenirs, clothing and food. The scents of spoon-bending Vietnamese coffee, exotic cut fruit and freshly-made bánh mì slice through the moped fumes to make your taste-buds tingle. Unidentifiable street food vendors sell leaf-wrapped goodies and just about everything you can imagine on a stick. You can’t help but be sucked in by the city’s movement, energy and character.
The two of us, Britsy Neale and Tatyana Brown, both MEM/MBA 2016 were lucky enough to be in Vietnam to attend the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s (SAC) Annual Meeting, which took place this year in Ho Chi Minh City. We are both earning our Master of Environmental Management degree from Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and also have the privilege to work with Dr. Jay Golden at the Duke Center for Sustainability and Commerce (DCSC). The DCSC is a member of the SAC and Dr. Golden has led a technical review team to assess Nike's Materials Sustainability Index (MSI) and make recommendations to the SAC regarding the MSI’s incorporation into SAC tools. We were thrilled when Dr. Golden asked the two of us to represent himself and the DCSC in Vietnam for this year’s SAC Annual Meeting. The day after our last final we boarded our flight in Durham, giddy with anticipation for the week to follow.
After a flight to NYC and another to Dubai and yet another flight to Ho Chi Minh City we arrived somewhat rumpled, though no less excited. Our hotel was in the heart of the city and we took a day to browse museum artifacts and sample some mysterious cuisine on offer. Stepping into dim pagodas from the loud heat and vibrant chaos of city streets was a welcome respite, and watching the peaceful revolutions of the hanging incense spirals inspires an immediate sense of peace. The city seems a compilation of such incongruous characteristics: peace and noise, old and new, tradition and innovation. What an appropriate setting in which to have the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Annual Meeting.
The SAC’s membership includes leading apparel brands, retailers, manufacturers, government, NGOs and academic experts that work together to reduce the environmental and social impacts of their products around the globe. Together the SAC represents more than one third of the entire apparel and footwear market, and that membership continues to climb. The SAC has developed the Higg Index, which is a detailed suite of tools that aim to create a standard and accurate measurement of both social and environmental impacts of footwear and apparel products. These tools assist companies in assessing their impacts in the various stages of a product lifecycle and throughout the entirety of the supply and value chain. The first version of the Higg Index was released in 2012, but an updated version of the Index was unveiled at the end of 2013. The Index employs life cycle thinking and helps participants self-identify hot spots and the most promising areas of improvement within their own operations. It is also a critical tool to leverage for improved engagement and collaboration between various stakeholders.
As the DCSC specializes in LCA (life cycle assessment), systems thinking and engagement, the focus areas for the SAC align ideally with our interests. We jumped into the Annual Meeting sessions with both feet and were thrilled with both the content and the level of interest shown by member organizations in working with academic institutions in general, and Duke in particular.
Among the highlights was the focus on accelerating the development of shared implementation tools and rigorous verification procedures that will enable broader Higg Index adoption as an industry standard. In fact, some manufacturers have already reported new sales opportunities resulting from improved sustainability performance. The SAC is also continuing to prioritize the identification of opportunities to work with the Fair Labor Association and the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals Group (ZDHC); such industry partnerships are crucial in gaining widespread and impactful adoption. Material innovations will continue to be incorporated into the Higg Index, and the future may also bring a module for retail facilities. The Coalition is actively working on better care and end-of-life product management, as well as tools that enable better product design.
The global apparel and footwear industry needs a pre-competitive standard and a suite of shared tools to manage its value chain. From our first-hand perspective, the SAC is moving quickly toward this goal, and it was heartening to witness frank conversations and earnest collaboration. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition has a large task ahead of them, but their progress and strategy inspire great optimism and promise.