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The Higg Index: Inside one of fashion’s leading sustainability measurement tools

By Huw Hughes

29 Oct 2021

Business |Interview

Image: SAC

As consumer and investor demand for more environmentally friendly fashion continues to grow, brands are facing the tricky task of measuring their eco-credentials, which can be expensive, complex and time-consuming.

One organisation trying to tackle the issue is the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), an alliance of NGOs and companies including fashion giants Asos, Inditex and H&M. In 2011, SAC launched the Higg Index, a set of tools for measuring sustainability that some hope could become the standard in the apparel industry.

So what exactly is the Higg Index?

The Higg Index comprises a core set of five tools that assess the social and environmental performance of the value chain and the environmental impacts of products across topics such as water use, carbon emissions, and labor conditions.

There are two product-focused tools: The Higg Materials Sustainability Index (Higg MSI) allows designers and product developers to assess and understand the cradle-to-gate impacts of millions of possible manufacturing variations, while the Higg Product Module (PM) measures the cradle-to-grave impacts of a product, from choosing raw materials all the way to end of use.

There are also two facilities-based tools: The Higg Facility Environmental Module (FEM) assesses a facility across several dimensions such as energy and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, water use and effluent, waste management, and chemicals. Meanwhile, the Higg Facility Social and Labor Module (FSLM) focuses on topics including working hours, wages and benefits, health and safety, and empowering communities.

And finally, to complete the portfolio of tools, the Higg Brand and Retail Module (BRM), which evaluates a company’s management systems, products, supply chains, packaging, retail stores, offices, transportation, and distribution centres.

To find out more about the Higg Index, what it offers the industry and how it might evolve in the future, FashionUnited spoke to Jeremy Lardeau, SAC’s vice president of the Higg Index.

How has the Higg Index developed since its inception?

The Higg Index has evolved over the past 10 years and grown from a single tool, the Higg Materials Sustainability Index launched in 2012 to the recently launched Higg Product Module, completing the Higg Index and providing a consistent and comprehensive view of impacts across the value chain.

The Higg Index tools have matured into comprehensive, robust offerings ready to scale, forming the basis for understanding performance and improving it over time - both for individual companies and as an industry. They have helped reduce audit fatigue, and focus time and resources on improving management practices rather than preparing audits.

What was your most recent achievement?

The SAC launched the first phase of our Higg Index transparency program in May this year. a tool for publicly sharing data on a product’s environmental impact, starting with its materials content. The launch marked a huge milestone for our organization and the industry and is a first step towards a consistent approach for transparency across the industry that will help consumers better understand the impacts of the products they buy, help businesses differentiate their products in the marketplace, and help spur innovation towards more sustainable products in the future.

Amazon, H&M, and Norrona were among the first brands to participate. We recently welcomed Tommy Hilfiger into the program and are getting ready to announce more partners soon.

Many fashion companies hope for common industry standards to track sustainability as it's costly and complicated to adhere to various different measures at the same time. How many companies are currently using the Higg Index?

The Higg Index user base has increased to 21,483 organizations across 119 countries with our membership covering approximately 40 percent of the apparel, footwear, and home textiles industry. Overall, the Higg platform has more than 45,000 users, including hundreds of brands and tens of thousands of manufacturers.

A garment’s sustainability credentials are limited by the degree to which its environmental and social impact can be quantified. Is there something the Higg Index isn’t able to measure yet?

No measurement system is ever perfect, which is why we are continuously improving and building on our tools as our understanding and scientific knowledge continues to evolve. This is why a core strength of the Higg Index is to bring together participants from across the value chain to continue to develop and shape the future of each tool, capturing best practices and reflecting them in our tools.

For the Higg Product Tools, there’s an additional factor: information needs to be measurable through an LCA (life cycle assessment) framework to be included. For example, the release of micro-fibres (including microplastics) currently cannot be quantified through LCA and is therefore not included in the Higg Materials Sustainability Index and Product Module.

What changes will be made in the future to the Higg Index? Are there any additional values it will be able to measure?

One of the tools’ greatest strengths is that they were developed by industry experts, so they are created to be useful and accessible to those who would actually use them. These tools will continue to evolve, as science improves and our understanding of the industry’s challenges deepen, allowing us to support our members and the industry, now and in the future.

For example, we are working to expand the Higg Transparency Program over the next two years, to incorporate environmental facility data through the Higg Facility Environmental Module, brand retail operations data through the Higg Brand and Retail Module. By late 2023, the program will have expanded to incorporate social data from the facilities through the Higg Facilities Social and Labour Module.

This will make it the first holistic system to communicate sustainability performance across a product's life cycle. The SAC’s goal is to have 100 percent of our brand, retailer and manufacturer members have a public-facing rating of sustainable performance that is credible and trusted by 2025.

The Higg Index relies on self-measurement by brands. What is stopping them from faking their sustainability credentials?

The Higg Facility Environmental Module, which is completed by facilities, and the Higg Brand and Retail Module, which is completed by brands and retailers, have two components: first is the self-assessment which the assessment owner (facility or brand/retailer) completes. Upon completion, if the assessment owner would like to communicate these results credibly to their stakeholders, they can go for third-party verification of their self-assessments.

The SAC is continuously working to create comprehensive, credible, and scalable verification programs for each of the Higg index tools to improve the accuracy of the data reported.

Currently, the Higg Facility Environmental Module, the Higg Facility Social and Labor Module and the Higg Brand and Retail Module have verification programs available. Each verification program framework consists of verification protocols; verification guidance; verifier application criteria and process; and a quality assurance process to ensure consistency between verifications conducted across the program.

It seems like quite a long and complicated process. Do you have an idea of how long it takes on average for companies to use the Higg Index to measure their sustainability?

The amount of time it takes varies widely between factories, brands, retailers, based on a number of factors such as users' readiness and preparedness. However, one key principle in how the tools are built is that they can start out simple and short, for first time users looking for an initial assessment, which can take a few hours to fill out, and scale to longer and more complex questionnaires for more advanced users that can take several days or weeks to complete.

Could you provide an example?

Our Facility tools and Brand and Retail module both have self-assessed and verified versions that can be completed. The first step for users is to complete one self-assessment of their performance and one verification. Once completed they can then share their Higg results with as many supply chain partners as they’d like. This process helps strengthen relationships and build accountability within the global value chain, and also supports the reduction of audit fatigue for facilities. This allows companies to start to understand where they are on their sustainability journey in different ways.

Though verification of the data submitted in the Higg Facility Environmental Module, the Higg Facility Social and Labor Module and the Higg Brand and Retail Module is not mandatory, it is incentivized through SAC membership requirements launched this year, and any information that is to be publicly shared, such as for consumer-facing claims, must be verified.

It seems it is more catered towards larger brands that can afford the time and effort required to take these complex measurements? If so, is there a way to make it more accessible to smaller brands?

The Higg Index tools have been developed for industry-wide applicability and scalability and are accessible to organisations ranging from small brands to large ones. You cannot change what you don’t measure and as such, the SAC encourages companies, whether big or small, to make use of the Higg Index tools to help them in their sustainability journey.

The SAC works with its members to support them in their sustainability journey. Through its membership requirements, it provides a roadmap for members to advance through four levels: foundational, progressive, strategic, and leader. In order to achieve the next level, members adhere to best practices in adoption, verification, transparency, and impact using the Higg Index.

You recently introduced Higg Index Sustainability Profiles. What are they and what benefit do they bring to the industry?

The Higg Index Sustainability Profile is a consistent scorecard for disclosing information on a product’s environmental impact. Brands will be able to create profiles for specific products, which include the following information:

A general text description of the product’s environmental impact level, and an accompanying graphic comparing its performance to a conventional baseline.

Additional performance details within specific impact categories, including global warming, fossil fuels, water use, and water pollution.

A Sustainability Profile may be included on a brand or retailer’s product display e-commerce page to help shoppers make more informed purchasing decisions. All Sustainability Profiles are also hosted on a public-facing section of the Higg platform, at profiles.higg.com.

What don’t the Sustainability Profiles measure, and what are your plans to address this?

As a next step, the Higg Index Transparency program will expand to incorporate both environmental and social labour facility data through the Higg Facility Environmental Module, and the Higg Facility Social & Labor Module, followed by brand retail operations data through the Higg Brand and Retail Module. The final step will be to layer in cradle-to-grave product impacts through the use of the Higg Product Module. This will make it the first holistic system to communicate sustainability performance across a product's life cycle.

The SAC’s goal is to have 100 percent of our brand, retailer and manufacturer members have a public-facing rating of sustainable performance that is credible and trusted by 2025.

The Higg index has faced criticism in the past that it’s secretive about the methodology behind how it measures sustainability. For example, The International Sericultural Commission (ISC) complained that silk was misrepresented in the Higg Materials Sustainability Index. A similar complaint was made about leather. What is SAC’s response to this?

The Higg Materials Sustainability Index is one tool in the Higg Index suite of tools for the standardized measurement of value chain sustainability. It is one of the most evolved tools in the suite and was created to help shift the industry at scale and designed to evolve as new data became available. The only approved use of the Higg Materials Sustainability Index is to compare within material categories. For example, organic cotton versus conventional cotton and recycled polyester versus virgin polyester. It is not meant to make comparisons across material categories.

The Higg Product Tool methodology and data is built around standard life cycle assessment practices and has been thoroughly reviewed by independent LCA experts and uses the state of the art databases and tools (GaBi). This information is transparently provided in full on the “How to Higg website” and we clearly indicate the source of all background LCA datasets used to calculate results within the Higg Product Tools.

Have you spoken to the silk producers about their concerns?

The SAC continuously invites collective action and collaboration, engaging with associations across the industry for example the leather and cotton industry as well because we believe it is the industry associations that have the deepest knowledge and access to primary information about their respective material types. We are in contact and working with the alpaca sector to update and improve the LCA data of alpaca fibers. However, the silk sector has consistently refused to engage with us despite our efforts to collaborate.

The SAC runs an open process inviting industry stakeholders to share new data in an effort to continuously improve the information on which designers and developers base their materials choices. If there is verifiable data showing the Higg Materials Sustainability Index data is incorrect or outdated, then we absolutely welcome and encourage submissions so the Higg Materials Sustainability Index can be updated. The SAC is not the source of any LCA data. We simply consolidate the best available LCA data in a single place, and rely on the industry sectors and their LCA practitioners for the data.