The business benefits of apparel’s up-and-coming sustainability assessment tool
Fashion is faster than ever before. Around the globe, we are consuming 80bn articles of apparel each year, creating a host of environmental ills. The footprint of this incredible mountain of jeans, T-shirts and footwear is enormous, so big that last year designer and fashion mogul Eileen Fisher declared that apparel was second only to Big Oil in its disastrous effects on Earth.
Luckily, there is a set of collaborative tools intended to push sustainability actions in both the environmental and social realms through the entire apparel supply chain, and its name is the Higg Index. Higg’s outstanding feature is its potential to unite the complex segments of the apparel industry with the use of common tools and to share the necessary data to enable widespread change.
“Part of the original intention with Higg is to invite people not to repeat the mistakes of environmental, social, and labour initiatives of the past, where everyone develops their own programme,” says Jason Kibbey, CEO of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. SAC administers Higg, which was playfully named after the Higgs Boson elementary particle. “One of our hopes is that companies would be able to redirect resources that might be spent on those initiatives toward actually making improvements.”
Higg started life as a distinctly American undertaking. Long-time sustainability champion and outdoorwear company Patagonia, of Ventura, California, was working with Walmart, devising strategies for sustainable apparel production in Walmart’s supply chain. Back in 2009-10 the two decided to invite and then meet with a dozen leading apparel companies to create a common measurement system for the sustainability impacts of apparel. The Higg Index initially drew heavily on two other tools: the Eco Index from the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) and Nike’s Environmental Design Tool.
Higg 1.0 was introduced in 2012 with separate modules for Brand, Product and Facilities, and is now at version 2.0. Due a little later this year is a Verification feature for the Facilities Module, and in 2017 an entirely new Footprinting tool is scheduled, as well as an update on Higg’s nascent Social Labor Module.
Marci Zaroff, a trailblazer in sustainable apparel who coined the term eco-fashion and founded the Under The Canopy organic brand, says that since Rana Plaza in 2013, she’s seen the acceleration of three trends in sustainable apparel.
“The first is education. A lot more is going on at fashion institutes and the next generation of designers is super engaged in sustainability,” Zaroff says. “The second is innovation in materials and manufacturing processes – we’ve previously only skimmed the surface of what is possible and huge breakthroughs in both those areas are under way and in the pipeline.”
Lastly, Zaroff says, the power of collaboration is yielding fruit among apparel companies, including SAC’s 175 global members.
Brad Tomm, the “sustainability guy” at popular Zappos online footwear company (which eschews job titles) says that as a new SAC member (since the autumn of 2015) he is amazed at the ability to collaborate with peers – having just participated in a conference call with a Zappos competitor, REI.
“Zappos is relatively new to supply chain sustainability when compared to our brands and partners. This year we’re going to start with the Brand Module,” Tomm says (His “external” title is Zappos’ director of sustainability). “I think this will help us move faster because we won’t have to create anything on our own. That makes me feel less alone in this giant world of retail apparel and footwear.”
Higg was designed to encourage that collaboration, as the data collected and entered in the modules by companies can be easily shared among members. SAC’s Kibbey says he has noticed an extraordinary amount of openness and communication among members.
The Patagonia path
A long list of US companies have SAC membership and have used or championed the Higg Index: Nike, The Gap, Levi Strauss, REI, Ann, and Patagonia, to name just a handful. Patagonia’s front-row seat in the creation and ongoing development of Higg helps shed light on the benefits even seasoned sustainability leaders can reap from working with the modules.
Patagonia started its journey with the Brand Module, which assesses policies and practices that demonstrate sustainability at the brand level. “When we completed the Brand Module it identified areas – packaging and transportation – where we hadn’t put into place the systems to gather the necessary metrics, and we needed to do better,” says Logan Duran, senior manager, environmental responsibility metrics and reporting at Patagonia. “Higg was a catalyst to dive deeper, and we created a task force in both those areas.”
Patagonia had already decided to break up its sustainability “department” and the Higg process prompted the company to set up teams to mirror the three Higg modules: a brand responsibility team, a product responsibility team, and a supply chain team (for the Facilities module).
Subsequently, Patagonia rolled out Higg to its Tier I finished goods factories as well as Tier II raw material suppliers. Duran says it has been a “pretty valuable” experience. One of the touted benefits of Higg is that it combats the “audit fatigue“ suppliers can experience if they sell to many brands and become besieged with audits and paperwork from different customers.
Higg, Duran says, has reduced this burden.
Crystal Group, a huge Hong Kong-headquartered supplier to many US brands, including The Gap and Levi Strauss, which makes more than 300m pieces of apparel a year, agrees that Higg helps it relieve audit fatigue with the “harmonised” approach. Crystal has worked with Higg since 2012, and most recently rolled out the tool to all of its Vietnamese, Cambodian and Bangladesh subsidiary companies in 2015.
When it comes to another touted benefit of Higg – its ability to save brands and suppliers money by reducing their need to spend on consultants or audits – Duran says that for Patagonia at least, the picture isn’t yet completely clear.
“As far as direct financial benefits, that’s the silver bullet – tough question,” he says. “Thus far it’s all a little indirect. We’ve rolled out our Chemical and Environmental Impacts Program and, for example, instead of having to go to every supplier and ask them to do a separate survey, we used Higg results to benchmark and baseline.”
Other companies have garnered measurable financial benefits from Higg, though: Timberland sustainability director Colleen Vien reported in an SAC evaluation of Higg in 2015 that the company achieved more than $40,000 in savings from using Higg. Ann Inc, headquartered in New York and the parent company of the Ann Taylor fashion brand, asked key suppliers to complete the Higg Facilities Module – and just a single facility found potential savings of $200,000.
Higg’s potential for big, scalable changes is still unrealised, however.
“It’s early in our evolution,” SAC’s Kibbey says. “I think one thing already being found by a lot of brands is that they are shocked at how far behind they are compared to leading peers. The upside is that Higg’s section-by-section comparisons really allow brands to demonstrate to the C-suite that they are laggards. In the supply chain, though, most of the gains are still down the road – we are in the baselining phase. ”
Duran says a key to moving out of that baseline phase is the verification feature Hogg will release this year. Most companies won’t be confident reporting improvements to the larger world until some type of verification exists. “I think it’s a bit soon for many companies to put out their Higg stories,” Duran says. “It’s info that isn’t yet independently verified.”
Moving yet faster
The question, then, remains whether Higg’s potential can be realised speedily enough to counteract the damage fast fashion causes. It hasn’t yet done so in the case of the harmful chemicals many of the best companies still use as fabric finishes. Weatherproofing, which has in the modern era meant perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), and PFC substitutes, are a particularly stubborn problem: Higg can show that innovation is needed here, yet even Patagonia, though it has pledged to replace PFCs and has switched in its 2016 line to a potentially less toxic treatment, admits difficulty in finding a substitute process or material that meets consumers’ demands for performance. Higg is designed to help companies get ahead of regulatory threats and be primed for improvements, but it doesn’t alleviate the need to actually spend and innovate.
“Higg is a measurement tool, it’s open source, it’s holistic and it really allows brands to look across the supply chain and find the biggest problems consistently showing up,” SAC’s Kibbey says. “It still takes time and elbow grease to make change.”
The tell-tale T-shirt
There’s a litany of eco-ills in every T-shirt we buy and wear: up to 2,700 litres of water go into producing it; dyes to colour it pollute waterways; it causes plenty of harm from all the washings we consumers give it; and it clogs landfills, as we throw away 1m tonnes of fashion annually, much of it T-shirts and jeans. Marci Zaroff knows the statistics – she founded MetaWear in Fairfax, Virginia, to develop a seaweed-based eco-dying process and firmly push a more sustainable T-shirt into the mainstream.
“Every major brand today is trying to figure out how to stay in this sustainability game and not be left behind either with transparency or authenticity,” Zaroff says. “Today’s consumer can ask the question, ‘Who made my clothes, and how?’ and expect an answer.”
Zaroff’s answer, for T-shirts anyway, is Sea Ink, the MetaWear process to screenprint on the top of Ts without formaldehyde and using seaweed ink. T-shirts made via the MetaWear process have received Global Organic Textile Standard and Cradle to Cradle certification, and Zaroff is determined to provide a turnkey solution for the pent-up demand she says is coming from brands for this “plug and play” sustainable apparel.
Zaroff’s enthusiasm is contagious, and her 25 years in the apparel and home goods industry as founder of Under the Canopy are proof of her dedication.
Yet in a different part of the T-shirt world, Kristina Michniak Apparel Manager for the fulfilment company Spreadshirt of Boston, Massachusetts, sees a different picture. Michniak’s customers range from the consumer designing a T-shirt for a special occasion to brands wanting to do a limited-run shirt, or socks, or hats. A decade ago when Michniak founded Spreadshirt she had a lot of requests for “eco Ts”. She spent time sourcing organic Ts, bamboo Ts, and even a T-shirt with a transparent online origin-tracking option.
“We had a few different styles that fell under that ‘eco’ umbrella,” Michniak says. “Sales for those products declined.”
Michniak now carries some Hanes Brands (of Winston-Salem, North Carolina) shirts, and she is aware that Hanes is an SAC member striving for sustainability through Higg.
“It’s promising to see a big player like Hanes working on this stuff but unfortunately it hasn’t translated to customers, at least not in the T-shirt ‘blanks’ industry.”
What Michniak and Zaroff agree on is that mainstream consumers need far more leadership from mainstream brands telling them the story of why they aren’t yet sustainable and why we all need to be.
“Rana Plaza was horrific but it pulled the curtain back and made people more aware,” Zaroff says. “Now consumers are looking for stories and we’ve got to figure out how to translate brands’ positive efforts to storytelling that really connects to consumers.”sustainability environmental packaging brands supply chain consumers