Is a single scorecard for sustainability on its way to consumers?
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, and its technology offshoot Higg Co., revealed the launch of their consumer-facing transparency program on Thursday.
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Program efforts come amid a heightened confusion among consumers who want to shop more sustainable clothing options but often don’t know where to begin. It also comes amid increased instances of greenwashing.
“The only way to combat greenwashing is with consistent, comparable data,” said Jason Kibbey, chief executive officer of Higg Co., in a statement. “We need a single system where the entire fashion industry inputs comprehensive data on all the factories, all the products, all of the materials, and all brand operations. Higg has been gathering and organizing this data for years — working with more than 45,000 users, and providing the standardized dataset global companies need.”
After teasing pilot learnings with H&M, PVH Corp. and Zalando last fall, more SAC members, including Amazon (which recently adopted Higg), Boozt, C&A, PVH-owned Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, Columbia Sportswear, Helly Hansen, JustWears, Lenzing AG, Norrona, Puma and Salomon have signed on to the initial program.
In this first phase, the program focuses on material content and derives data from the Higg Materials Sustainability Index (MSI). The MSI is part of the suite of measurement tools developed by the SAC that has seen its share of criticism in recent months revolving around its scientific methodology pitting natural fibers heavily against synthetics.
Initially, the program is available in the U.S. and Europe and covers an array of products, including tops, skirts, backpacks and purses, among others. Products are put forth by the participating brands, requiring vetting before they can be listed.
As of Thursday, online shoppers at H&M and outdoor apparel brand Norrona can see what the Higg Index is calling “sustainability profiles” integrated into the shopping experience on brand e-commerce sites, where products have a visual progress bar identifier of sustainability.
H&M debuted sustainability profiles for six kid’s clothing items detailing impact across water use, global warming, fossil fuels and water pollution. H&M and Norrona intend to scale the program across products this year, with C&A, Salomon, Tommy Hilfiger and Zalando to follow suit.
While championing the pursuit of easy-to-digest, holistic sustainability, circularity experts have cautioned against the use of a “single data point to make decisions on,” in the words of Dr. Jennifer Russell, professor of sustainable biomaterials and circularity at Virginia Tech.
According to Jeremy Lardeau, vice president of Higg Index at the SAC: “By focusing on materials data first, the Higg Index transparency program addresses one of the most pressing environmental challenges the apparel industry faces and empowers consumers to use robust sustainability data to inform their purchasing decisions.”
In its 2020 transparency report, human rights nonprofit Remake didn’t hesitate to list companies like H&M, Everlane, Allbirds and Zara among its “offenders” list for lack of information on labor. Passing scores could only be achieved when a brand meets the criteria for both garment worker well-being (fair wages, worker welfare) and environmental sustainability (waste, water, carbon, raw materials, animal rights and packaging).
The next 18 months will mark the expansion of data points through the Higg Facility Environmental Module, brand and retail operations data through the Higg Brand & Retail Module, as well as cradle-to-grave product impacts through the Higg Product Module. By 2023, the aim is to have social data from facilities fully embedded into the platform.
In the interim, the SAC and Higg said they “remain committed to working alongside industry to provide the most robust tool on the market to measure value chain sustainability” as they fine-tune the transparency program.
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