Interview: New Tool Will Measure Sustainability Across Apparel Supply Chains

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned two of the hottest trends now among CSR executives are supply chains and collaboration among companies on sustainability. The latest example for these two comes from the apparel industry, where the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), a trade association representing more than a third of the global apparel and footwear market, unveiled the Higg Index, a new tool for sustainability measurement across the industry value chain.

The Higg Index is basically a tool enabling apparel companies to better measure the comprehensive environmental and social impacts of their products. The idea is that through use of the index companies can identify opportunities to reduce impacts and improve long-term sustainability throughout their supply chain. To learn more about Higg Index I spoke with Jason Kibbey, SAC Executive Director.

TriplePundit: First, I’m curious where the name of the Higg Index comes from

Jason Kibbey: We had a lot of requirements for the name – it had to be short, simple and pronounceable in a lot of languages, and it also needed to have a clear trademark for apparel in 120 countries, which is no small task. So we spent a lot of time looking, and looked for inspiration at everything from science to sustainability, and it was one of many finalists.

We actually chose it before the Higgs Boson announcement. One of the things that was interesting to us and just a little bit of inspiration was the search for the Higgs Boson particle and the way that the particle changed the understanding of the universe and science. We felt that we’re looking for the parts of the supply chain that would change sustainability.

3p: How does the Higg Index work?

JS: There are three parts to the index – there’s a brand module, a facilities module and a products module. Each of these modules effects product sustainability. Overall we’re hoping to get a snapshot of the entire life cycle of a product and its impact – it is not a life cycle assessment in itself, but it does try to touch on and measure and evaluate the potential impact of every stage of the life cycle.

The brand module looks at policies and practices of a company that impact product sustainability. That includes everything from product designs and whether or not the company has policies to design products for longevity, or design products that reduce waste to things like packaging policies and whether or not the company has programs in place to measure and reduce its packaging impact…Most of those are indicators, where we ask ‘do you have this kind of program’ and then we have secondary questions to validate the primary ones.

The next category is product module, which looks at few different things. The biggest one looks at fabrics and which materials went into a garment. We use tables that we received from Nike’s work on their materials sustainability index. Finally we have our facilities module which looks at practices around energy, water and waste for the Tier 1 facilities that are actually manufacturing the garments.

3p: So this is a self-measured index, right?

JS: It will be evolving over time. Right now this is our first version, where we’re saying here are the priorities for us and here is what we’re measuring. Right now the intended use for companies is to measure and monitor themselves and keep those results internally for this phase of work.

As the quality of the index itself improves, as the quality of information coming back improves and as the understanding and the ability of the supply chain to actually implement and use this index successfully improves, then we’ll be looking at doing more data validation and potentially data verification. And at that point, that’s when we feel like it would be possible to communicate it outwardly and be able to have credible information.

3p: Are there any companies that announced already that they plan to use it?

JS: Well, all of our members commit to the index to some extent. That’s part of being a member. For some companies that can mean different things. We have some companies that are literally redesigning their sustainability programs around the use of the index and other companies who just started to use the brand module or facilities module. So you have really a range, but all the companies are committing to support it.

3p: Finally, what’s the level of collaboration between companies in the coalition when it comes to sustainability issues? Is there a clear preference for industry-based solutions over company-based ones?

JS: I think in general what you see from our members is a belief that company-based solutions alone are no longer capable of solving the sustainable challenges of our time nor are they cost effective, or efficient or just the right way to go anymore.

If you look at the CR report of Nike for example, they really talk about the shift towards broad industry collaboration as their future of corporate responsibility. In our meetings you’ll see the members are unbelievably collaborative and open about sharing their tools with the rest of the industry. Sometimes they’re competitors, but I think everybody feels that with sustainability there’s much bigger business gain to have from reducing risk overall in the supply chain, improving efficiencies and developing innovation on a larger scale than from developing tools to be used only within the walls of your company.

[Image credit: Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI)]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.