What will it take for the apparel and footwear industry to achieve zero discharge of hazardous chemicals across product life cycles? On April 16 and 17, Advisory Services Director Tara Norton and I attended the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) Stakeholder Summit in London, which sought to answer this question.

The summit brought together teams from more than a dozen brands with chemical companies and experts, industry associations, government agencies, NGOs, and other stakeholders. Signatories to the ZDHC include Adidas and Nike—which hosted the event—and C&A, Esprit, G-Star Raw, H&M, Inditex, Jack Wolfskin, Levi Strauss & Co., M&S, and New Balance.

In her opening remarks, Sarah Severn, director of stakeholder mobilization at Nike, shared her ambitious vision and challenged participants to imagine a detoxified future where  there would be a “museum of hazardous chemicals” akin to the “museum of poverty” envisioned by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus.

Over the two days, we explored the complex issues underlying chemicals management in apparel and footwear, including what exactly "zero discharge" means, which chemicals to prioritize and how to do so, and how brands can work with suppliers to make zero discharge a reality in manufacturing.

The summit precedes the release of the second draft of ZDHC's Roadmap, and we hope that signatory brands will rally around some of the themes that emerged from stakeholders: making the roadmap as concrete and action-oriented as possible and putting real heft into supplier engagement.

For BSR, this means moving past traditional training and auditing schemes and combining proactive, internal brand-side management with programs that empower suppliers and that make it relevant and profitable for them to reduce their environmental, social, and chemical impacts. It’s a monumental challenge in human, technical, and financial terms, and one that carries great rewards: healthy garment workers and detoxed ecosystems. I’ll bet the clothes off my back that the industry can rise to this challenge.