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Higg CEO on Reaching Fashion’s ‘Dark Corners’

Two years out from a spinoff from the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) and a Series A funding round, Higg, the exclusive licensee of the Higg Index, a suite of tools for the standardized measurement of supply chain sustainability, isn’t resting on its considerable laurels.

CEO Jason Kibbey told Sourcing Journal that Higg is making moves on new verticals with its network of primary impact data that helps businesses understand and improve the sustainability of their entire operations, and aiming to go deeper into the supply chain to reach the industry’s “dark corner.”

Independence

Operating independently has allowed Higg to use a structural model that can take outside investment and pre-invest in the platform so “we could make the user experience work, change our customer support experience and start investing in new tools and have new ways of using the data,” Kibbey said.

“When you have the largest organizations in the world, when you have 25,000 brands that have used your platform, you can have a technology platform that works, that scales, that meets their needs and doing that within an industry complex alone is pretty tough,” he said. “The biggest difference is that we’ve invested a lot. We’re on the verge of almost $9 million in investment to actually scale up the tools and the whole experience.”

Since 2019, Higg has invested in on-platform analytics, started offering licensed API access, and announced partnerships offering complementary assessments and data. The company is focused on developing a comprehensive platform for sustainability insights for responsible consumer goods businesses, beginning with fashion.

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Meeting markers

These technology investments have helped Higg realize significant markers. Since 2019, manufacturer environmental scores have improved nearly 20 percent, and Higg has broadened its reach from 20,000 users to more than 45,000, including tens of thousands of manufacturers. More than 500 fashion brands have committed to using its brand and retail tool.

“As a tech company, we’re able to innovate, move fast and scale quickly to help bring solutions to our urgent climate situation,” Kibbey said. “The clock is ticking, and consumer goods industries need to make more than small, independent measures to reduce their overall impact. It is time to bring holistic insights to industries and the kinds of tools that can identify data-driven solutions within the complexity of global value chains and add up to change at scale.”

Higg delivers deep data and analytics about the social and environmental impacts of businesses’ value chain operations. By utilizing its tools and services, companies can meet environmental goals faster, mitigate value chain risks and deliver on customer expectations.

“It took 10 years and significant external pressure for the fashion industry to get where it is today, finally using data to assess and address its footprint,” Kibbey said. “All consumer goods industries need to move faster to address climate change and social impact, using sustainability data that is comparable and contextualized.”

Nearly 60,000 performance reports have been shared between supply chain partners since 2019. Factories are completing assessments faster, taking just 115 days on average instead of 250.

Key projects

One of Higg’s significant projects right now is the launch of the first phase of a transparency program for publicly sharing data on a product’s environmental impact, starting with its materials content, Kibbey said.  The program is being run in conjunction with SAC, a global multi-stakeholder nonprofit alliance for the consumer goods industry, to provide a consistent way for brands, retailers and manufacturers to share sustainability information on apparel and footwear products, across impact categories such as water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and use of fossil fuels.

The main components of the program are the Higg Index Sustainability Profile and the Higg Index Materials seal, both of which are based on independent and externally reviewed environmental impact data from the Higg Materials Sustainability Index (MSI).

SAC members Amazon, Boozt, C&A, PVH’s Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger units, Columbia Sportswear, H&M, Helly Hansen, JustWears, Lenzing AG, Norrona, Puma, Salomon and Zalando announced their commitment to implement the first phase of the program on a wide selection of products available in the U.S. and Europe, ranging from tops and skirts, to backpacks and purses.

supply chain sustainability
The Higg Index Sustainability Profile Courtesy

At launch, the program will focus on the environmental impact of a product’s materials and will expand over the next two years to incorporate additional data, including manufacturing and corporate responsibility. During the course of the program’s development, a stakeholder expert panel, consisting of academics and NGOs, has provided objective feedback, insights, and recommendations on the program, and the process was facilitated and managed by an independent third party to ensure objectivity in engagement and input.

Over the next 18 months, the transparency program will expand to incorporate environmental facility data through the Higg Facility Environmental Module (FEM), as well as brand and retail operations data through the Higg Brand & Retail Module (BRM). By early 2023, the program will have expanded to incorporate social data from facilities, becoming the first holistic system for communicating sustainability performance across a product’s lifecycle.

“Change demands real performance data that indicates how well a brand, a supply chain, a product or a material performs compared to others,” Kibbey said. “With the Higg Index established as the industry’s common methodology, our technology can now provide that data out to the public in a consistent and clear way. We aim to serve both concerned shoppers as well as responsible businesses, both of whom are looking for better information to make more sustainable choices.”

New frontiers

Kibbey believes Higg is just “at the start of what’s possible.”

“We started with the apparel industry, but our platform can serve other industries effectively and demonstrate that sustainable improvements are good for business,” he said.

With the standardization of the Higg Index across the apparel industry, Higg is looking to benefit additional consumer products industries where measurement, insights and analytics can help drive sustainability decision-making. Kibbey noted that Higg’s partnership with Target has the retailer using the tools and guidelines across its value chain.

“Where we’re already probably furthest along is in home textiles and housewares,” he said. “We’ve also been going pretty fast into toys, which is an area that we’ve been looking to expand into more sustainability, especially at the factory level. But we’re really seeing the tools being used everywhere.”

Kibbey noted that in the past 15 months during the pandemic, Higg has adapted to the industry–“we slowed down just like everybody else”–and likely would have doubled its transactions and interactions if Covid had not struck.

“Now we’re seeing demand for our services explode,” he said. “It follows what our factory partners are reporting; that they can’t believe the order volumes that they’re getting. But we also have to be sensitive that a lot of the supply chain countries are in a really tough spot.”

Kibbey believes the industry is seriously moving toward incorporating preferred raw materials, which Higg is meant to measure and lead companies toward, as it shows the differences between organic and traditional cotton, recycled versus virgin polyester or “one of Lenzing’s viscose products versus someone else’s.”

“Many companies have made science-based target commitments, and they have committed to pretty substantial reductions in their overall carbon emissions,” he said. “There is no road that gets you there without swapping out a significant portion of your material base with more sustainable fibers.”

Higg’s “next frontier,” Kibbey said, is to go deeper into the supply chain–“we do Tier One factories really well”–into the next level of spinners, dyers, printers and others parts of the production process that have often been “the dark corners of this industry,” and figure out how to reach them and get them involved.

“We want to go after that long tail and go upstream and help reduce impact and increase visibility,” Kibbey said. “And provide value to those factories so they’re introduced to solutions that make them better.”