The Higg Index - What is it and what’s wrong with it?

It's amazing to see that many brands now seem to offer a variety of sustainable products. When shopping it feels like you can make a better choice now. Or can you? Upon closer inspection of what "sustainable product" means, we realise that it is more greenwashing. And so we are back to being frustrated. Again: brands, who are widely known for fast production, claim that a selection of their products is green - but the reality is, it’s a marketing move. We dove into this particular subject in one of our previous posts, wondering how greenwashing is still a thing

It's still up to us to find all the information about products and brands when we shop. We now heard about the “Higg Index” created by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) that should make things easier. Curious about who stands behind it, and how it can help the fashion industry and the consumer, we started digging for information.

The initiative for the Higg Index arose around 2009 with Patagonia and Walmart teaming up to create a measurable system for sustainability impacts of apparel. So far so good -  we know Patagonia, we like Patagonia, it's a truly sustainable brand without the fuss. Seeing them making efforts to create a system where sustainability can be actually measured and compared between brands reassures us that it might be the beginning of something good.

So what exactly does the Higg Index measure, how holistic is it in its approach and how can it help brands to become more sustainable in their production?

The Higg Index consists of three main tools: Product Tools, Facility Tools, and Brand & Retail Tool.

The Product Tools measure the environmental impact of a product's life cycle from resource extraction to the factory gate. Beginning with sourcing the fibers for the material including all the steps until the product is complete. This tool includes the measurement of water usage, potential water pollution, and fossil fuel energy needed, and how the overall global climate might be affected.

Facility Tools should measure the factory's standards in terms of energy use and emissions, water and waste management, and chemical management. This tool was created also to assess the working conditions of the employees, looking at the HR policies, working hours, wages, health and safety, and employee treatments.

Finally, the Brand and Retail Tool assesses the life cycle stages of a product as it goes through a company's operations, identifying sustainability risks and impacts: i.e. supply chain, logistics, packaging, use and end of use, offices, and retail points.

So looking at all the stages of production the tool enables to assess environmental impacts such as biodiversity, animal welfare, deforestation, greenhouse emissions, water use, and hazardous waste.

It also includes the examination of social impacts during the production of garments, such as forced labour and human trafficking, child labour, wages, health and safety, harassment and discrimination at work, corruption, and minority rights.

The Facility Tools were the ones to be introduced first with the hope that once the factories know about the impacts of their production, and can be compared to other factories, this would be an incentive to do better. Research has shown though, that this was not enough of an incentive. What drives change for these factories is the contracts from brands following the disclosure of their score. If brands decide to place more orders, this is what contributes to improvements within the practices of factories.

The good news is that more and more of the biggest brands want to implement the Higg Score and showcase it for every product. H&M, Zalando, Tommy Hilfiger are amongst the big corporations that will introduce the score in near future.

By being transparent about the score of every product the fashion brands will increase pressure on other brands to follow their lead. The more brands unite in their goals, the clearer those goals would be communicated to the factories. Factories have contracts with several different brands, which have different demands for sustainability. This for example is another problem, as factories get mixed messages from their contractors about what they should and should not improve on.

Companies who will take on board the Higg Index would also receive feedback from the consumer, thus being able to identify trends and potentials. As a consumer, you can not only see how a product performs in terms of emissions and water usage for example, but also whether the working conditions are of a high standard. This data can be used to reconsider contracts with factories. It seems again though, that change might only be initiated by the behaviour and choices of the consumer. Thus the morality and the ethics of consumers will dictate the progress towards sustainability. Corporations who are going to adapt the Higg Index do so also to escape governmental regulations. Showing that they are working towards a better system. However, proper regulations and incentives can't be avoided. The introduction of policies like differentiated taxation in form of reduced value-added tax for eco-labelled products extends producer responsibility to new areas and the use of governmental laws provides new guidelines for environmental protection.

Where regulations are also needed is in the area of "greenwashing". The Higg Score might provide a clearer picture of the environmental and social impact of the production of a garment, though the visualisation of the score might be an instrument of greenwashing practice. At the moment the score will show the exact numbers of emissions for example, but they only mean something in comparison to other numbers. Thus brands can create a "standard" against which they can measure. Like "the production of this T-Shirt required 10% less water usage than standard. What is standard, and whether the standard is good enough - those will be questions that the consumer might be left alone with.

Also, brands want to implement the feel-good numbers for the online check-out process, showcasing info like:

Your basket is using better materials, leaving a lower foot-print, x% better than most shoppers.

We can't help but think that it is a very vague use of words, that make use of global bad practices, that we hope to leave in the past.

With the big corporations joining forces to implement the same system that measures the impacts of their products and operations we hope that this will lay the foundation for a more responsible and sustainable fashion industry. We need to be aware that as a consumer you will still have to question many steps and practices and that abandonment of greenwashing and significant improvements will need the regulatory hand of governments. It will take years until major improvements will be visible, which will make production also more efficient. The impact of the production of individual pieces would reduce, but the fear is that this would encourage even more products which will result in more environmental impact.