Can Higg’s Promise of Transparency Quell Sustainability Skepticism?

Two weeks ago at CFS+, formerly Copenhagen Fashion Summit, Jason Kibbey, chief executive officer of Higg Co., announced that the Higg Index would finally enter the public domain.

Today, there are close to 20,000 active users on Higg Index, a suite of tools developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition enabling brands, manufacturers and facilities across the footwear and textile sectors to measure their sustainability performance regardless of the stage in their journey. Last year, Higg Co. spun out of the SAC as a for-profit benefit technology company responsible for hosting the Higg Index. As a multi-stakeholder partnership, the SAC is still the primary manager of the standards and methodology for the Higg Index.

In 2021, anyone — be it consumers, NGOs, regulators, governments, whether they’re a Sustainable Apparel Coalition or Higg Index member or not — will be able to access the Higg Index’s new Open Data Portal.

“The Open Data Portal was really a solution to say, ‘How can you maintain simplicity and do things like product claims?,’ when you make a claim about a product’s sustainability performance and make it really simple but then have that rich comparability and information behind it,” Kibbey said, adding that just stamping “eco-friendly” on the product page doesn’t cut it.

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Certainly, the stakes are higher for brands, as some reports indicate that only 20 percent of consumers trust brand sustainability claims.

“Consumers are a little bit jaded. There’s so much generic, baseless crap out there,” said Kibbey. “What we’ve found is success comes from a mark with deeper data behind it and credibility beyond just a claim or a phrase. The antidote to that distrust is opening up comparable, credible data that anyone can look at.”

The Open Data Portal, developed in partnership with the SAC, is “designed to fast-track apparel industry transparency globally, empowering consumers and third-parties to validate brands’ sustainability claims,” a press statement read.

“Fashion is what expresses our values, and the world wants to see change. And fashion has to be an expression of that desire for change,” Kibbey said.

To inform the Open Data Portal, partner organization SAC managed robust customer tests on the product pages of H&M, Zalando and PVH Corp. to develop insights, performing tests on some 7 million consumers. Despite the product page tool expected to launch in 2021, brands will only be required to publicly disclose all of their sustainability data in the portal by 2025.

“For an average brand, there are a bunch of steps they’ll have to get through for this to be complete,” Kibbey said. “First, they have to have their entire supply chain — tier 1 and tier 2 — not just identified, but measured. A lot are still just learning their tier 2.”

Mapping an entire supply chain typically is a three- to four-year process, with product footprinting — or detailing the environmental impact of a product from cradle-to-grave — being another undertaking entirely.

“Another thing that is a pretty significant change is actually doing product footprinting for every product. That is integrating it into all of the processes a company uses to make a product. That is a huge lift, and that takes time,” Kibbey said. “We know there are going to be some front-runners that are going to be using portions of this next year, but to get it to be an industry norm for the whole industry — that’s a lift and you’re going to need plenty of time to do it.”

But are these efforts happening fast enough to quell skepticism for the Higg Index methodology?

Devil’s Advocate?

In July, a report published by the Institute for Multi-Stakeholder Initiative Integrity, titled “Not Fit for Purpose” put multi-stakeholder initiatives like the Higg Index and Better Cotton Initiative in the hot seat for failing to center workers’ rights in their efforts and for failing to provide measurable transparency. To that end, an August report from the University of California Berkeley researchers — while lauding its overall mission — also questioned the efficiency of the SAC’s past 11 years of work in driving meaningful environmental change in the industry.

“I think there are fair criticisms,” Kibbey said. “One of them is trying to bring together a lot of the impact areas into a single score [which] is a very difficult exercise and is subjective by nature because you’re putting them together. SAC tried to be as un-subjective as possible by weighting impact areas equally.”

By August, Higg Co. updated its Higg Material Sustainability Index, as part of routine updates. The Higg MSI measures five environmental impacts: chemistry, global warming potential, nutrient pollution in water, water scarcity and fossil fuel depletion. It features more than 80 example materials commonly used in the industry including cotton, leather, polyester, nylon, jute, silk and metals.

In September, Higg Co. teased a suite of product launches in store through the next year, including news of a new Higg Product Module said to build off of the Higg MSI and the sustainability work by the European Commission, aimed at offering greater cooperation in the value chain. Higg PM pulls updated data from third-party software like the GaBi life cycle assessment database by information technology company Sphera and the World Apparel Lifecycle Database by environmental services firm Quantis.

The body of updates lay the groundwork for the Open Data Portal.

Materials, a Touchy Subject

Swatches of textiles. PA Wire/Press Association Images

Scrutiny for the Higg MSI is coming to a head, despite recent updates, with critics saying its methodology is biased. Higg MSI is a central product to Higg Co., with many product releases built off of its framework.

The MSI measures steps from extraction/production to the point of product assembly. The declared unit of the Higg MSI is one kilogram, and it attempts to be a baseline comparison for materials, essentially trying to compare apples and oranges in an apples-to-apples way, via what’s called a “normalization” approach.

“The MSI is cradle-to-gate because how you design a product is really the determinant of how it lasts in the marketplace,” Kibbey explained. “Since the beginning of the MSI, it’s designed to be constantly updated. It’s updated every several months and there have been some significant changes when a really robust LCA replaces one that was just good enough and wasn’t as thorough.”

According to the SAC web site, Higg MSI updates are made approximately twice a year to include new data submissions, sources and to respond to customer feedback.

Lately, the criticism comes from the natural and animal fiber enthusiasts and independent consultants who have challenged the Higg MSI — not on the basis of belief-based assertions, but rather on the efficacy of its scientific methodology. Groups include the Australian Wool Innovation and the International Wool Textile Organisation (wool), International Council of Tanners (leather), manufacturers like Incalpaca, representing the Peruvian alpaca industry (alpaca) and the International Sericultural Commission (silk).

The MSI looks to include the most widely used fibers. Last year, polyester comprised more than half of the market share of global fiber production, as per a report from Textile Exchange.

By the Higg MSI, polyester’s score was 41 in 2018 (the lower the score the better), preceded only by cork and rubber footwear compound. Not far behind were elastane/spandex at 44, acrylic at 48, viscose/rayon at 53, nylon at 56, modal at 58 and synthetic polyurethane leather at 59. That same year, conventional cotton ranked 99, silk ranked 128, cow leather ranked 161 and alpaca ranked 281. In the most recent iteration, silk alone jumped to a rating of 681.

The SAC was probed on the latter and asked to consider a new dataset from the environmental nonprofit Ecoinvent LCI database to assess silk, but said the impact would be more severe and decided against it.

“We found some huge inconsistencies,” said Stephen Sothmann, president at the newly formed Leather and Hide Council of America, referencing an oversight in cattle age reflected in the GaBi database tapped by the Higg Index. Cattle age directly impacts the score of leather, as it is a byproduct of the beef industry. “If they talked to anyone in the beef industry, lifespan is 1 to 1.5 years tops. [At 5 to 6 years], you’ve already doubled the [material’s] impact.”

Sothmann believes reform is needed and that there’s an inherent bias against natural producers. However, he also reiterated the importance of the SAC’s and Higg Co.’s mission saying “everybody can agree with this, we agree with the fundamental goal of the group.”

Separately, wool groups like The Woolmark Company echoed concerns with the methodology omitting microplastics and other factors in circularity — like the commercial viability of recycling a fiber. Regarding the former, a 2019 report featured on attributed synthetic clothing as the main source of microplastics, contributing roughly 35 percent of the global release of primary microplastics to the world oceans.

“The Higg Materials Sustainability Index is incomplete and inaccurate and consequently at risk of guiding well-intentioned consumers towards less rather than more sustainable products. In particular, its methodology biases in favor of synthetic, oil-based clothing over natural fiber clothing,” Angus Ireland, program manager, fiber advocacy and eco-credentials at The Woolmark Company, told WWD. Ireland referenced a report “Review of Methodological Choices in LCA-Based Textile and Apparel Rating Tools” by Kalinda J. Watson and Stephen G. Wiedemann published in the journal Sustainability.

These recent conversations are not new battleground. In the past, groups like the International Wool Textile Organization and Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development have made similar recommendations for the Higg Index, regarding the inclusion of microplastics impact, in the same report cited by Woolmark which criticized the “exclusion of impact categories” and data quality — and as a result, the SAC said it would include microplastics when appropriate data was available.

Previously, the SAC used 2011 data from the European plastics industry to represent a global average for polyester production although China is the largest plastic producing country.

Dialogue Continues 

This month, SAC issued a response to the International Council of Tanners (another stakeholder in the cattle and leather industry which Leather and Hide Council of America works alongside). The SAC has been in dialogue with various groups, as Kibbey and Sothmann confirmed, and it regularly invites groups to submit new and updated lifecycle assessment data through the MSI Contributor — which may or may not be accepted, depending on the third-party review process.

While SAC manages the methodology of the Higg Index, it is aided by certain decision-makers like the SAC Chemistry Task Force and Product Advisory Council which help inform the semi-quantitative approach behind the chemistry methodology in the Higg MSI. Those on either advisory council include brands like Asics, PVH Corp. and Nike, chemical manufacturers like Chemours, a spin-off of Dupont, Dupont, and textile industry groups like Cotton Incorporated, among others.

“There will always be changes and there will always be, essentially, fibers that feel like they should perform better — that is part of any kind of rating exercise,” said Kibbey.

“I think what we’re also looking at is evolving the way the MSI is used,” he added. “What we’re moving towards instead of looking at materials without context is really go to the real context of where this industry is, which is the product itself, and now that we have the product module, you can use the material impacts within the context of how long does it last? What about its use and care phase? There are all kinds of other attributes we can consider.”

If fibers were nuanced, products are even more so.

“When you put that into a product context, it changes the whole impact calculation,” Kibbey said. Describing the nuances of individual product durability, he added, “There’s leather that does not last very long. You or I have probably bought dress shoes that fell apart after two wearings…I have polyester pants that I’ve worn for 15 years.”

“The Higg MSI is now being leveraged for the Higg Product Footprint Module, thus all issues with the Higg MSI will flow onto the PM,” Ireland said, warning against potential green-washing where data is inherently limited.

The Next Chapter

The first look at the draft Open Data Portal from Higg Co., and Sustainable Apparel Coalition. Courtesy

How will the SAC and Higg Co. approach the next chapter of an ongoing mission toward full transparency?

“What we see is when you’re talking about impacts and you’re talking about the impact of a product. It’s really a combination of values, science and data,” Kibbey said. “We want to put out the best information available, that is measured in ways that are scientifically credible on issues that are really important to consumers.”

Next year, alongside the Open Data Portal, SAC and Higg Co. aim to release measurable social impact criteria. The firm is tapping the Social and Labour Convergence Program as well as the International Labour Organization, which is formally participating. The first version of the scoring function was released last week under the Higg Facility Social and Labour Module.

Kibbey believes the organization to be influential in the industry, adding that brand and facility scores are “getting better,” and where previously no sustainability programs existed, many of the Higg Index users, for example, now have energy reduction and water reduction programs in place.

“The SAC and the tools have really provided a framework for many of these companies getting started for how do they build their programs and how do they start to measure their impacts and reduce their impacts,” he added.

However, progress remains slow going — across every industry.

“I think we’ve just set the table for the kind of impact that we need to be doing for the next few years,” Kibbey said, noting the need to further address reduction in natural resource use, research and development of better materials, making products to last and circular systems. “It needs to go much higher and much faster.”

For More, See:

Report Finds Sustainability Tools Ineffective in Driving ‘Real Action’

Higg Index Heads for Full Usage by SAC Members by End of 2017

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