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Raw Materials: How to Shift From ‘Price Paradigm’ to ‘Value Paradigm’

In a virtual panel conversation, “Materials in Fashion–Getting to Lower Environmental Impact at a Global Scale,” material and life-cycle assessment experts and brands that rely on the Higg Material Sustainability Index (MSI) discussed how the data-driven tool is helping the fashion industry scale the use of materials with reduced environmental impacts.

The group also addressed some of the common misconceptions around the Higg MSI, as well as its short-comings and plans to address them.

Jeremy Lardeau, vice president of the Higg Index at the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), said about 60 percent to 80 percent of the fashion industry’s carbon footprint lies in the extraction, processing and manufacturing of raw materials.

Hélène Vallin, head of the footwear materials development team at Salomon, noted that the popularity of capsule collections, such as for Earth Day, actually work against sustainable efforts because “you’re going to use the same amount of energy and water to produce lower quantities” and contribute to higher prices.

LaRhea Pepper, CEO and co-founder of Textile Exchange, said the organization takes a holistic approach and examines the whole lifecycle of a particular material.

“We’re looking for best in class, we’re not having one material compete against another,” Pepper said. “It’s about moving all materials along a path of continuous improvement and the potential they have. For example, there is huge potential for the natural fibers, whether that’s cotton or animal fibers, to make a difference in regenerative practices when it comes to soil and biodiversity…For synthetics, it’s about recycling.”

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Cash East, director of analytics at Higg, said the tool is constantly evolving by taking into account new scientific findings and methods such as microfiber shedding.

“The MSI is certainly a living database and our user interactions are one of the strong points,” East said. “We get data from all over the world and all kinds of different sources. It’s really a continuous improvement and a constant quest to keep making the data more robust.”

Jesse Daystar, chief sustainability officer and vice president of sustainability at Cotton Incorporated, agreed that it’s “really about [the] constant evolution of LCA (lifecycle analysis).”

“Every day there’s new research coming out, whether it’s about microplastics or microfiber biodegradation,” Daystar said. “It is really important to be in front of the science to understand where the tools are and adopt new methodologies.”

He noted that the organization’s cotton LCA took into consideration all aspects of the fiber’s lifecycle on the environment without making comparisons to other materials.

Krishna Manda, senior manager for sustainability integration at Lenzing Fibers, said LCAs are a valuable tool to capture the environmental impact of a material in the value chain, but stressed that the social, animal welfare and other aspects should also be considered.

Manda said a multi-criteria analysis is needed because “there is no perfect tool or database” to determine the best materials and methods to produce the most environmentally sound product or operate in the best way.

Pepper emphasized that cost remains an obstacle to companies adopting the so-called best materials–the ones with the lowest carbon footprint or chemical usage, for example–because “preferred materials cost more.”

“We need to shift from the price paradigm to the value paradigm,” she said. “The price paradigm is what has created the pollution, the poverty and the problems. The big lever to pull here is price. Breaking this paradigm is going to be the big chance for the industry and these companies to reach their environmental goals.”

Norrøna has observed that making durable products with a value consumers understand means “the price becomes a little less important,” said Brad Boren, director of innovation and sustainability at the outdoor apparel maker.