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Hot Take on Higg MSI Controversy: ‘We Risk Missing the Elephant in the Room’

In the controversy surrounding the Higg Materials Sustainability Index (MSI), Kim Van Der Weerd, intelligence director at the Transformers Foundation, believes many are missing the point.

In a post on the Transformers Foundation website, Van Der Weerd penned an op-ed, “The Higg Data Debate: No Room for Context, Imagination or Co-Creation,” questioning whether the data debate is really the most important one the industry should be having when it comes to the material used in manufacturing textiles and apparel.

She noted that the MSI, a consumer-facing product labeling tool, has come under fire for alleged “greenwashing.” The accusation, leveled by the New York Times. is that the fabric ranking system created by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) favors man-made synthetic fibers over natural ones.

In addition, the Norwegian Consumer Authority ordered outdoor apparel brand Norrøna to stop using “misleading” Higg data in its marketing, the authority said. In late June, the SAC said it was temporarily pausing the MSI.

The New York Times alleged that Higg data was outdated and funded by the synthetics industry. The Norwegian Consumer Authority charged that the Higg MSI data was “likely to be false and untruthful.” In response to the New York Times article, Amina Razvi, CEO of the SAC, wrote that incomplete data is better than brands, manufacturers and consumers “having less access to robust and credible data” and advocated for “closing the data gap.”

Van Der Weerd agreed that “data can and should be debated,” but added that “data is just information expressed as a number, and numbers are just values representing a quantity. In other words: the meaning of data is derived from context; it’s not intrinsic.”

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She cited a quote from a 2021 report on cotton misinformation by Transformers Foundation, in which co-authors Marzia Lanfranchi and Elizabeth Cline wrote: “Part of what pulls us toward data and statistics is that they’re closely linked to our ideas of objectivity and truth, as we tend to assume that data transcends all human relations and stands alone with no outside influences.”

Van Der Weerd wrote that her point wasn’t that numbers aren’t useful, but that numbers, in order to be useful, require context.

“By focusing on data’s credibility, we risk missing the elephant in the room–universal, aggregate, claims about a garment’s social or environmental impact, will, by definition, strip data of the context that gave it meaning in the first place,” Van Der Weerd wrote. “Regardless of which data we use, or how credible it is, an aggregate or universal claim is likely to be greenwashing.”

In other words, while debating the numbers themselves is worthwhile, the more fundamental question should be “why is it difficult for brands and retailers to communicate data with context?” She noted that brands and retailers often claim that when production is done by so many actors in so many countries, context-specific claims are difficult to assess.

“Deferring to scale and complexity misses the more fundamental point–long, complex and unwieldy supply chains are a choice, not an inherent state of play,” she wrote. “Most brands and retailers have chosen to be footloose…because all the things that would tie them to a specific place, context and business partner…are too risky. Instead, they’ve opted to minimize financial risk for themselves by offloading it onto their supply chains. Suppliers, in turn, tend to cope with this by further offloading that risk (for example, through subcontracting, outsourcing, and short-term contracts) until, ultimately, it lands with the most vulnerable. One result: supply chains get longer and more complex.”

The crux of this debate is not the data itself, according to Van Der Weerd, but that, on the one hand, most brands and retailers chose to give up the knowledge they would have needed to make meaningful claims about their sustainability impact because it was better for their books and their shareholders. On the other hand, those same brands and retailers sought to leverage their so-called “sustainability chops” as a market differentiator, Van Der Weerd wrote.

“These two things are fundamentally in conflict with one another,” she wrote. “The Higg controversy is just one example of how brands and retailers have tried to square this circle. Cue the accusations of greenwashing.”

Maybe instead of debating which aggregate universal figures can be most credibly presented to the public or advocating for better data to support different aggregate claims, “we should be talking about how to reduce the breadth, depth and complexity of fashion supply chains so that it’s possible for brands and retailers to regain their understanding of how and where their clothes are produced,” Van Der Weerd wrote.

Some ways to achieve this include advocating for prices based on consistency relative to forecast or by putting pressure on brands to make financial commitments equal to at least 50 percent of projected demand for a period equal to the supply chain’s total lead time.

Another path, she noted, is using data to help people understand the need to fundamentally rethink the relationship with clothing, adding “we must buy less and even that is not enough.”

“Reimagining how we communicate to the public requires co-creating a vision for the future,” Van Der Weerd added. “This requires recognition–when brands and retailers make big aggregate claims about how they want to change their impact, they are not asking their supply chains for tweaks around the edges, they are asking for a fundamental rethink of the way those suppliers do business and of the contexts in which those suppliers operate. Aggregate claims, universal figures, certification schemes, all these brand-driven ways of communicating about impact trivialize their supply chain’s realities. We can’t co-create a vision for the future if the entities doing the heavy lifting do not feel seen, understood and recognized.

Since June 27, Van Der Weerd is participating in the SAC’s Panel of External Experts designed to provide unbiased, independent, ongoing feedback, guidance and constructive critique on the proposed specifications, methodology and launch of the Higg Index Transparency program.