Going beyond compliance

The two objectives of the apparel program are: aligning standards across the apparel industry, and proving  the business case for company practices that focus on the social and environmental impacts of apparel manufacturing.

Firstly, driving sustainability in the apparel sector is hampered by a myriad of auditing and assessment standards. Harmonization is necessary to shift away from compliance to capacity building to address the root causes of unsustainable practices.

The apparel program addresses the sector’s social and environmental footprint by unlocking an upward vicious circle: A Race to the Top.

On the social side, worker engagement and productivity training will improve managers’ understanding of employee perspectives and ameliorate working conditions. This has proven to have positive effect on worker satisfaction, and decrease worker turnover and rework and return rates. This will boost productivity and profitability, gradually improving workers satisfaction, the position of workers in employer-employee engagement, pushing up wages.

On the environmental side, IDH drives improvement in:

  • energy efficiency and greenhouse gases,
  • air emissions,
  • wastewater treatment,
  • use of chemicals.

Better practices will result in cost savings and will reference known and proven best practices, including the Clean by Design 10 Best Practices for Mills, ZDHC Chemicals Guidance Documents, Higg FEM, and others. Throughout the program, performance improvements are monitored and tracked. This will lead to the development of a curriculum for the program, and a recommendation to scale it across the global textile industry.

Sustainable Apparel Coalition

The apparel program of IDH has a long standing partnership with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC). The SAC was founded to address some of the apparel industry’s most systemic challenges: the lack of a common language, and a tendency to use comply-or-die type of measurements that are unsuitable for developing a continuous improvement approach. With its Higg Index, the SAC makes a strong contribution to the apparel program’s objective of streamlining assessment standards.

The Higg Index creates a common language and helps factories formulate a program for continuous improvement. The tool can help deepen the relationship between buyers and suppliers by assessing a factory at a point in time, awarding an evaluation score, and making suggestions about improvement areas, linked to existing impact programs where possible. Moreover, the Higg Index is an online platform allowing manufacturers to share data. By sharing best practices online, factories enable other factories to benefit from learnings.

Although to date the SAC has primarily promoted the use of the Higg Index among large-scale companies, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) are increasingly becoming a part of its scope. A pilot project is currently encouraging SMEs in the apparel sector to make use of the Higg Index. 

The Apparel & Footwear Industry in Vietnam

Vietnam is the world’s number four exporter of apparel and footwear products. Employing 2.5 million workers, of which 80% are women, the industry is a key source of industrial employment for the country. In addition, it is the second biggest export industry. Initiatives such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a potential Free Trade Agreement with among others the United States, and increases in manufacturing costs in China could cause Vietnam’s already rapid growth in apparel and footwear production to dramatically increase with a subsequent increase in milling activities. There is significant opportunity and need to provide incentives for sustainable investment in order to unlock additional capital. This coincides with the Vietnamese Government’s plans for continuous improvement of the apparel sector for 2015-2020.

Race to the Top, which was launched in 2015, will add value to the above by stimulating dialogue among stakeholders in Vietnam’s apparel sector. 

Textile and garment sector in Pakistan

The textile industry is the largest manufacturing industry in Pakistan, and continues to be the second largest employment generating sector in the country. In January 2014, the European Union granted GSP Plus, a preferential trade status, to Pakistan. This has increased Pakistani competitiveness in the EU.

Our shared goal in Pakistan is to improve productivity and compliance to all the requirements under the GSP Plus status through the Pakistan Buyers’ Forum. The Pakistan Buyers’ Forum works towards a larger sustainable supplier pool to draw from (improving the competitiveness of Pakistan production) and cleaner and more equitable production in Pakistan. The coalition focuses on risk remediation, retention of GSP Plus, positive exposure, and functions as a means for raising policy and regulatory concerns through a dialogue with the Pakistan government, together with the ILO, IFC, and Netherlands embassy.

Environmental interventions

In Suzhou, China, NRDC’s Clean by Design program targets the environmental impacts that are associated with textile mills. The program pushes the Chinese apparel sector toward sustainable manufacturing practices, by implementing ten different interventions. These interventions focus on areas such as insulation and heat reuse. With its approach, Clean by Design demonstrates that investments in environmental performance can yield returns in less than a year. IDH supports the most recent iteration of the Clean by Design program and explores to replicate the lessons learned in new locations.

Productivity & Engagement

Through Productivity & Engagement projects, IDH aims to increase productivity and  worker satisfaction. Activities that are being undertaken are factory assessments, workshops, training and dialogue.

Creating for example continuous improvement teams where workers views are taken into account improves worker satisfaction, helps with worker retention and reduces rework rates. A pilot in China with 53 factories had an ROI of 1 year. 

Mill and Factory Optimization

IDH co-funds Mill and Factory Optimization projects, to reduce water and energy consumption, and increase renewable energy for reducing greenhouse gas. By demonstrating that sustainable business can be more competitive than the traditional way of doing business, we create models that are scalable and built to last.

Best environmental practices have been implemented throughout Asia, saving energy and money, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving sustainability and competitiveness. In China, best environmental practices have been implemented, by dozens of textile mills totaling more than 200 best practices to save up to 36% of water use, 22% of energy use, 61000 tons of coal and 36 million kWh electricity reduction, as well as millions of dollars. 

Relevant SDGs


Sibbe Krol

Program Manager, Apparel

phone+31 (0)6 11623212

e-mailemail me

Kirsty Stevenson

Senior Program Manager a.i. Apparel

phone+1 415 699 6988

e-mailemail me

Tu Nguyen

Program Manager, Apparel (Vietnam)

phone+84 961040308

e-mailemail me

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Supported initiatives in Apparel

  • Race to the Top

    The multi-stakeholder Race to the Top initiative was co-created to reshape the Vietnamese apparel and footwear sector by promoting and enabling locally embedded sustainable manufacturing practices

  • Pakistan Buyers’ Forum

    The Pakistan Buyers’ Forum is working towards a more sustainable textile sector in Pakistan.

Related projects

Title Type Year
Race to the Top Projects Factsheet 2016
Race to the Top Factsheet 2016

Driving towards socially just and environmentally sustainable apparel manufacturing