Released in July 2012 by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), the Higg Index is a sustainability measurement tool that allows apparel companies to measure the impacts of their products across the value chain. Late last year, the SAC–a trade organization comprised of brands, retailers and manufacturers–announced an updated version of the index reflecting 18 months of development effort.
The SAC represents companies totaling nearly 40 percent of the apparel and footwear market, Executive Director Jason Kibbey told TriplePundit, and the index is already being widely adopted at all levels of the value chain, so its reach and relevancy is clear.
As more companies jump on board, could the index inspire industry-wide sustainability standards? And what would this mean for the future of sustainable apparel?
What’s new in Higg 2.0?
The biggest distinction between the first-generation Higg Index and Higg 2.0 is the updated platform. The original Higg Index utilized a fairly bare-bones Excel model. The latest iteration brings the index to an online platform developed by Schneider Electric–increasing accuracy and adding the ability to share users’ sustainability data.
A company’s assessment details the entire lifecycle of its products, from design to manufacturing to sale. Additionally, added and improved content in the Higg Index 2.0 includes:
- The Materials Sustainability Index (MSI) web tool, an apparel and footwear materials list released in June and since expanded to include sustainability metrics on 45 materials.
- Content from the Chemicals Management Module, which was co-created through a joint working group between the Outdoor Industry Association and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.
- New social and labor modules, which are currently in the beta content phase with plans to expand in future iterations of the Higg Index.
While improved content surely adds to the scope of the index, particularly with respect to the introduction of social and labor modules, the shareable aspect of the updated version may prove to the most promising.
“It allows companies to see where they are relative to their peers as a whole, and what we really hope is that this inspires a race to the top,” Kibbey said of the new platform. “It’s a pretty strong incentive to improve, because no one wants to be at the bottom or the back of the pack.”
The slow march to an industry-wide standard
Beyond friendly competition, the index–and the SAC as a whole–are centered around a decidedly collaborative model.
“One of the biggest challenges to improving the sustainability of supply chains is that every company will come with their own program, and you have some members that are manufacturers with over 100 customers,” Kibbey observed.
This can lead to confusion and wasted effort on all sides, an observation shared by Desirae Early, manager of sustainability strategy at Levi Strauss & Co. (LS&Co.), an early member of the SAC and a collaborator on the first Higg Index:
“One of the big assets of the Higg Index is moving toward that path where we’ll have a common industry standard for how we measure performance in the supply chain,” Early told TriplePundit. “[Manufacturers] end up focusing a lot of time and energy on just figuring out how to comply with all of these different programs and requirements.”
The Higg 2.0 Index allows companies to compare their own sustainability assessments side-by-side with those of their peers, encourages a focus on specific goals and provides a framework for an industry-wide standard. The assessment process becomes streamlined, reducing both costs and headaches and freeing up time and effort for tangible improvement rather than basic compliance with pass-fail audits.
Opening the doors for long-term investment
In addition to spurring one another to higher levels of sustainability performance, sharing assessment data also allows companies to invest in long-term approaches that go beyond compliance.
“We’re giving this long-term view so that [companies] can put long-term capital behind making these improvements with the assurance that it’s not going to be the flavor of the month,” Kibbey said.
Providing this assurance is the fact that “there’s a huge percentage of the industry behind them,” Kibbey says, a factor that impacts even large players like LS&Co.
“It’s very difficult for any brand to go about reducing all of the impacts of their supply chain alone,” Early said. “It becomes much easier if we move towards those goals as an industry and look at how we collectively figure out ways to reduce our resource impacts so that we can have a more sustainable business in the long run.”
The impact on the industry
While Kibbey is the first to admit that the Higg Index is “still an experiment,” the tool provides great potential for communication and collaboration that spans manufacturers, retailers and brands–which bodes well for industry-wide transparency moving forward.
“The intention behind all of this is to really shift the responsibility so that everybody takes responsibility for those areas that they control,” Kibbey said, noting that the SAC hopes companies at all levels of the value chain will also continue to exchange sustainability best practices amongst themselves.
“They can have a conversation with those areas beyond them as well, and really shift the dynamic from top-down to more of a matrix, so that everybody is playing a real role and improving environmental and social performance across the supply chain.”
Image credit: Sustainable Apparel Coalition
Based in Philadelphia, Mary Mazzoni is an editor at TriplePundit. She is also a freelance journalist who frequently writes about sustainability, corporate social responsibility and clean tech. Her work has appeared on the Huffington Post, Sustainable Brands, Earth911 and The Daily Meal. You can follow her on Twitter @mary_mazzoni.