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Consumer Demand Behind SAC Tool Breaking Down Product’s Eco Footprint

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) and its Higg spinoff are launching a new consumer-facing tool for fashion stakeholders to share data on a product’s environmental footprint—and some of the industry’s biggest names will be partaking of it.

The first stage of the so-called Higg Index Transparency Program will provide a single, unified approach for brands, retailers and manufacturers to disseminate sustainability information about apparel and footwear items across impact categories such as water, greenhouse-gas emissions and fossil fuels. The goal of the project, the organizations said, is to distill a decade’s worth of tool development, consumer testing and independent environmental impact data from the Higg Materials Sustainability Index (MSI) to provide shoppers with “unprecedented visibility” into a product’s “real” impact.

“Change demands real performance data that indicates how well a brand, a supply chain, a product, or a material performs compared to others,” Jason Kibbey, CEO of Higg, said in a statement. “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.”

Amazon, Boozt, C&A, Calvin Klein, Columbia Sportswear, H&M, Helly Hansen, Lenzing, Norrøna, Tommy Hilfiger, Puma, Salomon and Zalando, which are among the program’s inaugural participants, will be implementing the initial phase of the initiative on a selection of products available in the United States and Europe, “from tops and skirts, to backpacks and purses,” the organizations said.

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Amazon will also be adding the freshly minted Higg Index Materials seal to its list of trusted certifications for its Climate Pledge Friendly program, which highlights products deemed better for the planet.

One of the initiative’s key components is a scorecard known as the Higg Index Sustainability Profile. H&M and Norrøna will be the first to embed the profiles into their e-commerce platforms on Wednesday, with the others following in the coming months.

Higg Index transparency program

The program will initially focus on the environmental impact of a product’s materials and will expand over the next two years to include data relating to manufacturing and corporate responsibility from other Higg tools such as the Higg Facility Environmental Module and the Higg Brand & Retail Module. 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 life cycle,” the organizations said.

Through this rollout, the SAC, Higg and their launch partners will continue to learn and improve both the Higg Index tools and the transparency tools while evolving them to meet changing consumer, stakeholder and government demands over time, the organizations said.

As interest in sustainability has grown, so too have consumers demanded greater transparency and accountability, they noted. The Transparency Program is designed to provide consumers with what they’ve been asking for: relevant, easy-to-parse information that can help them make more informed decisions about what they buy.

“Transparency itself is not the end game, but it’s a critical step for transforming the industry and establishing a new era of accountability,” said Amina Razvi, executive director of the SAC. “By leveraging the Higg Index—starting first with environmental data and then expanding to include social impacts—we can help both businesses and consumers make better decisions, and drive collective action at scale.”

That the program utilizes the MSI will not be uncontroversial, however. Critics of the tool, including several natural-fiber trade groups, have slated it for incomplete, misleading and outdated data that frequently rates animal-based materials such as silk, wool and bovine leather as less eco-friendly than their synthetic counterparts.

“It is a generally accepted principle that you cannot compare [life-cycle assessments] unless they are produced using exactly the same boundaries and methodologies,” Veronica Bates Kassatly, an independent analyst, previously told Sourcing Journal. “No such suite of comparable LCAs for the various fibers used in the apparel sector exists. In fact, the only LCAs based on global data are for cotton.”

Polyester, Bates Kassatly said, accounts for 57 percent of global fiber production, yet “nobody has the slightest idea what the average impact of worldwide polyester production is, because there is no global LCA for polyester.” While the impact of wool has been better documented, for the rest, “there is no representative data at the global level, so we really are flying blind here,” she added.

In November, the SAC said it will be retiring the aggregated single score in favor of a second edition of the Higg Product Module, which will include, for the first time, a more holistic consideration of a material’s use and end of life.

Bates Kassatly remains skeptical, however. “The announced changes will make absolutely no difference,” she said. “MSI users already have access to the five individual impact area scores and can use them any way they please. It’s those impact scores that are unsubstantiated and misleading. Deleting the aggregated single score simply makes the MSI’s bias in favor of plastic fibers less apparent.”

The SAC is more than aware of the gaps the MSI must still bridge and the need for better, up-to-date information so its databases stay fresh. Razvi previously told Sourcing Journal that the group also welcomes suggestions on how it can improve.

But despite the emphasis on measurement, the tools themselves aren’t “end game,” she added. Rather, the SAC’s goal is to wield the tools to “really actually understand where you are as a company or understand where we are as an industry and then use those insights to drive action at scale.”

“Now that the tools are built, and they’re ready, the next step really is how we actually get that information in the hands of decision-makers, whether [they’re] companies or consumers,” she said. “In a lot of ways I feel like the next decade is going to be crucial for everyone, but I think there’s a lot of incredible work that’s coming out of our member companies in the coalition that will really allow us to transform the industry.”