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ESG Outlook: Jason Kibbey of Higg on Identifying the Most Meaningful Impacts

ESG Outlook is Sourcing Journal’s discussion series with industry executives to get their take on their company’s latest environmental, social and governance initiatives and their own personal efforts toward sustainability. In this Q&A, Jason Kibbey, CEO of Higg, discusses why we’re at an environmental and social tipping point.

Name of Company: Higg

Name: Jason Kibbey

Title: CEO

Jason Kibbey Higg
Jason Kibbey, CEO, HiggHigg Courtesy

What do you consider to be your company’s best ESG-related achievement over the last 5 years?

At Higg, everything we do is a sustainability-related initiative. We’re thrilled that Higg data is being used as the foundation for the apparel and footwear sector at SASB (Sustainability Accounting Standards Board). It is one of the leading ESG metrics, and we appreciate that SASB recognized Higg data as a key way to understand the impacts of an apparel and footwear company.

What will ultimately be most impactful, which hasn’t happened yet as the data is currently used only in a B2B context, is when our brand and retail tool data is shared. It spans the value chain and goes deep into where companies have their biggest impact. For example, if you’re an outsourced consumer products company, your biggest impact is throughout your supply chains—the way products are designed, manufactured, delivered and even returned. The meaningful impacts don’t happen at corporate headquarters through volunteer hours or recycling strategies.

Our tools address core impacts of these companies by looking holistically at how they steward product creation and delivery. They do so in a way no other ESG tools are doing well yet. I’m proud of that and excited that the market is starting to recognize the need for contextualized data that’s comparable and consistent across industries.

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What is your personal philosophy on shopping, caring for, and minimizing the environmental impact of your clothes?

For the first couple years after joining the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, and before that when I had my own clothing company, I struggled with buying clothes at all for a period. As I’ve learned more about the impacts of clothing, I’ve focused on two things: buying items I can use for a variety of purposes, so one item replaces several. That’s a great way to immediately reduce impact. Secondly, I buy things I know will last a long time.

Some of the work I was exposed to when working at the SAC came from a lifecycle assessment of a jacket that WL Gore created. It basically showed that after six or seven years of using a jacket, the impact becomes negligible. So I try to buy things that are timeless, don’t show stains and can be repaired. I have a great relationship with my local dry cleaner. And I buy things that can be used for a variety of situations, such as pants that I can hike in and can still wear with a dress jacket.

How much do you look into a brand’s social or environmental practices before shopping?

I tend to buy from a small number of brands and retailers whose environmental impacts I know, and of course, use Higg tools. Sometimes I’ve been in the factories and seen those products produced. Recently, I bought a pair of pants from a brand that I typically wouldn’t have purchased from, but after seeing where the pants were manufactured, I was so impressed with the sustainability practices, I decided it was something I wanted to support.

Anything new you are doing to boost sustainability beyond the fashion industry?

There’s now a lot of good information about the four biggest things we can do to reduce our impacts, especially on carbon. The first is changing the electricity source on your home to only support renewables on the grid, which I have done. The next is changing transportation. I moved my office to be five doors from my house and drive an electric car. The next is meat consumption, which I try to reduce. And the fourth is flying. For many sustainability and apparel professionals, this is one of the hardest things. But as the pandemic showed us, we don’t need to fly all over the world to save it.

Professionally, the biggest thing I can do is to advocate and enable a shift to more sustainable manufacturing, more sustainable products, and more sustainable brands. If we can enable product designers, buyers, consumers, and regulators to act on relevant data, it will have a million times more impact than I can make with my personal behaviors.

What is the biggest misconception consumers have about sustainability in fashion?

That certain categories are terrible and certain categories are saintly. I’ve seen fast-fashion denim factories that use unbelievably low amounts of water and energy, and I’ve seen small sportswear companies whose wastewater management practices make me deeply uncomfortable. It’s really about how each company is managing its whole supply chain. It’s not about certain types of companies or materials being bad or good. A holistic view is essential to knowing where to focus first.

What was your company’s biggest takeaway from the Covid crisis?

We’ve seen how fragile the apparel and footwear system is. In spring 2020, Covid caused disruptions in every part of the industry. Some buyers canceled completed orders, and suppliers and manufacturers faced tremendous strain and uncertainty. Many retail employees were furloughed indefinitely, and brands had full seasons of new clothes sitting in warehouses.

But we’ve also seen how resilient the industry is. I’ve been glad to see forward-thinking brands redouble their efforts in sustainability and responsibility. They have committed to building responsible partnerships with their suppliers by working more closely to anticipate their needs, and also work with them on environmental and social issues. At the risk of sounding cliché, I do see this as an opportunity to build back better.

What is your company’s latest sustainability-related initiative?

We recently released a product tool that enables designers, developers, and ultimately consumers to understand the entire footprint of the products they make and purchase. We’re really excited about scaling transparency. We have a tremendous database of product sustainability information that is beginning to be shared with consumers. I’m also excited to see how we can support industry-wide efforts like reducing carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030, a goal that the Sustainable Apparel Coalition has set.

What do you consider to be the apparel industry’s biggest missed opportunity?

The apparel industry should have been working on reducing emissions several years ago and starting to scale solutions. This industry has to dramatically decarbonize and do so quickly.

Another challenge is that social impact data has been sitting in silos and operating on platforms that aren’t comparable. We see opportunities with the Social and Labor Convergence Program and the Higg factory social and labor tool to reduce duplication in measuring social performance. We think there will be new opportunities in the future that will allow us to compare impacts regardless of the source.

What are you optimistic about?

I’ve been working in sustainability in the apparel and footwear industry since 2007 and have never seen such incredible interest scaling investment in change. I think we’ll look back at this moment as a tipping point. The revolution that started with outsourcing and shipping manufacturing around the world that scaled up in the 1970s will be nothing compared to the revolution we’re going to see as we decarbonize this industry.

Innovative manufacturing techniques are also taking place closer to the source of materials and buyers. I just came back from touring Sanjeev Bahl’s Saitex factory in Los Angeles. Their ability to make denim with almost no water and very low electricity in a high-wage area is incredibly impressive. Good jobs that are paying prevailing wages for the area can be a model for employment opportunities around the world. I think it is an indication of what we’ll see in the future that will decarbonize, localize and improve the production of garments and other consumer goods.