The Sustainable Apparel Coalition formed in the wake of an unlikely partnership between cult outdoor gear label Patagonia and retail giant Walmart back in 2009. The strange bedfellows came together to "incentivize companies to reduce environmental impact and increase social justice," Rick Ridgeway, VP of environmental initiatives and special media projects for Patagonia, said in a statement.
The SAC trade organization now has more than 200 members, including some of the world's largest apparel brands and retailers like Adidas, H&M, Nike and Target. Its flagship effort, the Higg Index, is a sustainability measurement tool that allows apparel companies to assess the impact of their products across the value chain. In 2014, the SAC announced an updated version which it dubbed the Higg Index 2.0. It is now used by more than 10,000 apparel manufacturers globally.
The biggest distinction between the first-generation Higg Index and Higg 2.0 was an updated platform. While the original Higg Index utilized a fairly bare-bones Excel model, the 2014 iteration brought the index to an online platform—increasing accuracy and allowing companies to share their sustainability data with peers and partners.
Now, the Higg Index is on the move again. On Monday, the SAC announced it will launch a for-profit technology venture in hopes of continuing to scale the impact measurement index to more apparel stakeholders worldwide. The newly launched Higg Co., a public benefit company based in San Francisco, will look to create new technologies to deliver the Higg Index, according to the SAC.
It seems SAC's early partners are already on board with the new venture. "At Patagonia, we're looking forward to working with Higg Co. as a customer to scale positive impact throughout the entire value chain, " Ridgeway said. Walmart also recently announced it will work only with suppliers that adhere to the Higg Index by 2022, Business Insider reported.
An apparel company's Higg assessment details the entire lifecycle of its clothing, footwear and accessories, from design to manufacturing to sale. The Higg suite includes the Materials Sustainability Index (MSI) web tool, an apparel and footwear materials list, along with measurements related to chemicals use, labor and human rights.
After transferring tech development around the Higg Index to the new venture, the SAC says it will "continue to focus on the multi-stakeholder collaboration that drives social and environmental sustainability measurement and improvements" in the apparel sector.
"The SAC's vision of an industry that produces no unnecessary environmental harm and has a positive social impact remains as vital as when we started," SAC Interim Executive Director Amina Razvi said in a statement. "Spinning out the technology capability enables both organizations to focus on accelerating progress toward that vision."
In addition to hosting Higg Index tools and pioneering new technologies, Higg Co. will give companies the capability to integrate measurable data directly into their internal systems, "better enabling decisions throughout the enterprise," according to the SAC.
Higg Co. will be led by former SAC CEO Jason Kibbey, who 3p first interviewed about the Index back in 2014. "Our customers rely on strong technology to drive the social and environmental improvements that will reshape the apparel and footwear industry, and other industries in the future," Kibbey said in a statement. "With the spinout of Higg Co., we will provide the industry the trusted technology it needs to be able to implement the Higg Index at scale."
That’s good news, considering that the fashion industry’s progress toward its sustainability targets has slowed this year compared to last year, according to an annual report produced by SAC and the nonprofit Global Fashion Agenda.
The transition to a for-profit model may raise some eyebrows, but funding partners—including the investment firm Titan Grove—say the shift will enable more effective deployment of the Higg Index, ultimately improving sustainability and social justice across the apparel supply chain. "As a for profit, well-capitalized company, Higg Co. will facilitate a faster and more efficient rollout of the Higg Index across global value chains to drive transformative, lasting change," said Titan Grove Chairman Jeff Tannenbaum.
Though the new venture will operate independently, it will continue to collaborate with the SAC, while rapidly scaling the Higg suite in a way that wouldn't be possible to fund at a nonprofit, Kibbey of Higg Co. said. “We are dramatically expanding the engineering, quality assurance, resources and customer experience of the Higg platform," he told Ecotextile News ahead of the venture's launch. "We will be tripling—if not more—the amount of development work we are putting into the platform. Essentially, we’re building a tech organisation that is entirely focused on providing frictionless technology for members and users.”
Mary Mazzoni is the senior editor of TriplePundit. She is also the co-host of 3BL Forum: Brands Taking Stands LIVE! and the producer of 3p’s sponsored editorial series. She is based in Philadelphia and loves to travel, spend time outdoors and experiment with vegetarian recipes in the kitchen. Along with TriplePundit, her recent work can be found in Conscious Company and VICE’s Motherboard.