The Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) is rolling out a new program that will allow brands to use a consistent language to rate the environmental impact of their products and hundreds of companies are betting they can use this tool to make their businesses better by making their products better.

The Outdoor Industry Eco Index, which was announced to the outdoor industry at this summer’s OutDoor show in Friedrichshafen, Germany and the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City, Utah, is an environmental assessment  tool that examines and quantifies the environmental impacts of specific products to allow manufacturers to benchmark current levels and set standards for improvement. The index looks at products from cradle to grave, focusing on six key stages of their life cycles: Materials; Packaging; Product Manufacturing and Assembly; Transport and Distribution; Use and Service; and End of Life.

While the Index, which has been in the works since 2007, is still in the “stakeholder review period” and not scheduled to be officially released until early 2011, over 80 companies including Patagonia, The North Face, Timberland, REI, and Quiksilver have signed up to test a "Beta Phase 1" version and help fine tune the final system before its official release.

REI Director, Product Integrity Kevin Myette says he's incredibly excited about the breadth of companies signing on for the beta testing of the scalable tool, and sees this as the first step in a sustainability-based revolution in product innovation across multiple industries. "When we have constant language and constant measures I really think it's a huge platform for innovation…I think sustainability is the next quality," explains Myette.” “If we're putting energy into innovating around sustainability we're actually saving money and improving performance. It's not a take away from other [factors, when we have constant language and constant measures I really think it's a huge platform for innovation. I think really smart organizations, it opens up a new avenue for innovations.”

A look at the product life cycle stages that the Index addresses

A look at the product life cycle stages that the Index addresses

The OIA Eco Working Group, which is made up of approximately 100 companies, has been developing the project for three years, collaborating to create a comprehensive, accurate system built around five guiding principles to make it credible, reliable, and capable of large scale adoption:

  • – Collaboration. The Eco Index is the result of thousands of hours of work by more than 100 companies in the outdoor industry.
  • – Open-Source Information. The Eco Index is completely open-source and available for use by all companies, reflecting the industry's belief that true transparency is essential to "move the needle" on sustainability.
  • – Transparency. It is critical that all outdoor industry stakeholders are able to view, understand, and provide input into the ongoing development of the Eco Index.
  • – Scalability. While the Eco Index is rooted in the outdoor industry, its structure is such that it has the ability to be applied within other industries and sectors.
  • – Global Reach. The Outdoor Industry Association has partnered with the European Outdoor Group on the Eco Index initiative to ensure a common worldwide sustainability tool for the outdoor industry.

“Transparency is no longer optional,” says REI Director, Product Integrity Kevin Myette. “Whether it be from a perspective of a demanding consumer, or that we're addressing these challenges and how we can articulate them to our government, who is rightfully increasing their expectations of industry.”

For years, it’s been easy for companies to make claims about the environmental benefits, reduced footprints, sustainability, and other wishy-washy, general attributes of products with no formal way to back this up. While the Eco Index has been designed as an internal, supply chain-facing tool, the goal of making it customer facing is a priority for many of the companies involved. Not only would this allow companies to rate their progress down the path to sustainability, but it will also give consumers a way to consistently rank products from participating brands on a level playing field and help with foggy claims of environmental benefits and green washing.

“Everyone wants to get it right first, but I think everyone recognizes…at some point we’ll need to look at the best way to make it a consumer-facing index and make it credible,” says OIA Corporate Responsibility Manager Beth Jensen.

Beth Holzman, manager of CSR strategy & reporting for Timberland, one of the founding members of the OIA eco-working group and whose Green Index rating system provided part of the inspiration and framework for the Eco Index, believes a consumer-facing model is paramount.”It is absolutely essential that this label become  consumer-facing,” says Holzman. “Otherwise, consumers aren’t able to make informed choices and demand continued improvement from the brands they do business with. It’s enormously important for consumers to have an understanding  about what goes into the product they’re buying – and they can’t compare if  there’s not some standard that levels the playing field.”


A detailed look at the inputs addressed at the various stages of a product's life cycle.

The beta test is open to all companies, including non-OIA members and details of how to get involved are below. The beta test will allow companies to take specific products through the process and then review its effectiveness. Following this, the index will go up for a third-party review by Ceres, a national network of investors, environmental organizations, and public interest groups working with companies and investors to address sustainability challenges, to ensure the credibility of the index.

OIA’s goal is to roll out the finished project at this January’s OR trade-show in Salt Lake City, Utah but Jensen says this date is not set in stone as the goal is to get it right, not rush it out. ” If the feedback period takes longer, we’re open to that. We want to be sure it goes through the vetting period it needs,” says Jensen, adding that the outside review from Ceres is very important to add credibility to the Index.

How To Get Started

If your company is interested in participating in the Eco Index Pilot Program, the process is as follows:

  1. E-mail Beth Jensen at Outdoor Industry Association with contact name, email address, company name and the types of product(s) you intend to pilot.
  2. Visit www.ecoindexbeta.org and review the Eco Index Guidelines, Indicators and Metrics.
  3. Download the Indicator Scoring Tool spreadsheet and gather the appropriate BOM's to be used in the pilot (either by downloading the generic version or appropriating BOM's for your own products.)