Columbia Sportswear is proudly a bluesign® company. But what does that mean for you?
There’s plenty of talk in the outdoor world about doing the right thing. One big push is to get everybody outdoors—but the flip side of this well-intentioned goal is that it means selling more outdoor gear. And for every piece of outdoor apparel produced, from trail running shoes to rain shells, more natural resources are used.
It also means using more toxic chemicals in the production process, which then inevitably goes right back into our environment.
But this vicious cycle of using nature in order to enjoy nature doesn’t have to happen. Groups like bluesign®, a Switzerland-based organization dedicated to eliminating toxic substances from the outdoor product supply chain, have been gaining ground. We spoke with Jill Dumain, the CEO of bluesign®, to find out more about how the company is making a difference. (And yes, Columbia is a bluesign® company).
Tell us a bit about bluesign®’s goals.
Bluesign’s objectives are pretty straightforward. We want to eliminate harmful and hazardous substances right from the beginning of the manufacturing process. That ensures the final textile product meets stringent consumer safety requirements, but also provides protection to the people in the supply chain and the natural world.
Bluesign® got its start in 2000 – how has the interest in bluesign® grown since then?
In the early years, the growth was slower because it was a totally revolutionary concept to be looking at what was going into the process rather than testing what was coming out at the end. So it took some time to educate the industry to understand the advantages. However in the last ten years, the growth has been consistently increasing, of course with some peaks and valleys, but overall in an upward trend. Happily, the interest is still growing and we have had some of the strongest months to date this year. I think when companies invest the time to truly understand what we are doing and the depth that we work, they realize the value in the system.
Bluesign® ‘s objectives are pretty straightforward. We want to eliminate harmful and hazardous substances right from the beginning of the manufacturing process.
What are some of the biggest challenges bluesign® faces today?
One of the biggest challenges is how to really impact chemical change throughout the entire textile industry. I am more optimistic today because of the increasing interest, but it is still the pioneers that are doing this work today and we need the broader textile industry to really start to also shift the way they use chemicals. As we all know, on a pretty regular basis we read news reports of pollution from the textile industry and this is a problem that could be solved with the tools like bluesign® that are in existence today.
Have the issues bluesign® (and bluesign® companies) faced changed over the past 17 years? What are the great success stories?
I don’t think the fundamental issue of the need for responsible chemical management has changed but the approach has changed. There are more and more companies, though still not enough, that are taking the issue much more seriously.
The best success stories for me are the ones that involve education and cleaning up of chemical companies and textile mills where it can be particularly dangerous for the people working there. Often the stories we hear about the people in supply chains are in the sewing factories with potential and real physical harm. And we also hear stories of chemical pollution in waterways and the environment, but we don’t often hear about the potential danger to the people working with the chemicals in textile supply chains.
One of the biggest challenges is how to really impact chemical change throughout the entire textile industry.
I was recently in Taiwan visiting a chemical manufacture that had made a lot of improvements as the result of their bluesign® system partnership and the factory was beautiful. But as soon as I walked outside the emissions from a neighboring factory were so bad I was trying not to inhale. I am the lucky one because I could leave but the people that live and work there aren’t able to. When a supplier tells me they have been able to make positive changes due to their relationship with bluesign®, I see this as a success story.
Bluesign® helps brands and companies on many different levels. What is the easiest way for them to get involved?
There are some initial steps that are extremely easy for a brand. The first one is to request bluesign® fabrics from their textile mills. The brand doesn’t have to engage with us at all to do this, but it helps the system overall as the textile mills see demand as a result of implementing better chemical management. However, the best way from our point of view is to become a Brand System Partner. With this level of commitment, the brand has access to our extensive knowledge in the textile supply chain.
We now have 75 people working globally in the company with expertise in dyes, textile chemicals, textile machinery, and crisis communication with NGOs. I had someone call it a textile industry brain trust the other day with the distinction that we are more than a think tank because we provide solutions and take action.
How did you get involved with bluesign®?
When I was working for a brand and in charge of the material R&D department, we had many good programs in place but nothing around the chemicals used in our supply chain. Bluesign®‘s founding CEO, Peter Waeber, came to visit in 2000 to explain the concept to me and I was immediately a fan.
I had someone call it a textile industry brain trust the other day with the distinction that we are more than a think tank because we provide solutions and take action.
We weren’t big enough to hire our own chemists and didn’t have the resources to enforce a restricted substance list (which was the common tool used back then) but suddenly I had the option of having access to chemical experts from the textile industry. This is an important point because there are chemists that you can find and ask questions but to have the textile technical know-how is something bluesign has always had and still maintains today. This is unique.
What are the accomplishments you are most proud of during your tenure?
Without hesitation, building the relationships with my new colleagues. As I mentioned earlier the brain trust that exists in bluesign is unmatched, but what isn’t as obvious from the outside is how committed everyone here is to the values of the company.
We have nearly 20 nationalities in the company spread across the globe with hundreds of years of combined textile and apparel industry knowledge. I have had the chance to meet the vast majority of them and really spend time listening to understand their background and how they each bring value to the organization.
Can you explain how bluesign helps a specific brand?
1. Conduct a Brand Assessment and determine the gaps in their current materials Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) program. Work with them to help develop an action plan to address most relevant issues.
2. Regularly reviewing their existing supply chain (mostly Tier 2, textile material producers) to help understand and manage the riskier aspects of their existing network. Main factors: Facility (known issues), Geographic, Material Types, Processes.
3. Help them establish a new Environmental Health and Safety/Restricted Substance program, and make suggested improvements to existing program.
4. Help review their “bluesign product” candidates to ensure that they understand the way things are measured.
5. Helping Columbia Sportswear to achieving their goals, yet preserving the integrity of the program.
6. Training of Columbia Sportswear staff on:
- Better understanding and managing risks inherent in their supply chain.
- How to make the most of the bluesign system.
- Emerging chemical risks (ones that haven’t risen to regulations or even NGO campaigns—yet).
- Training of Columbia Sportswear Asia staff, in country, in their native language.
Can you give us some specifics about how bluesign makes an impact with sustainability and corporate responsibility?
Brands are in a constant challenge to improve their efforts around sustainability and corporate responsibility and the competition among them seems to increase regularly as well. By implementing the bluesign system as a brand and into their supply chain, they can confidently say they are using the most stringent chemicals management system available today.
Also by doing the implementation into their supply chain, I am very confident a company will find many success stories that are applicable to their business and these are always interesting stories to stakeholders that care about a company’s corporate responsibility.