What is the Higg Index and why is it important in sustainable fashion?

Over a decade ago, in 2009, two retail giants, Walmart and Patagonia, came together to create the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC). The SAC was meant to develop a universal approach to measure sustainability performance. A few years after the SAC was launched, the organization created a tool that executed the coalition’s goal. The Higg Index provides brands and retailers with a way to measure each aspect of their business, from material sourcing to production and beyond, and determine how sustainable their practices are. While the tool was praised at first, it has since steadily received less praise and more criticism. Where does the Index go from here?

“The Higg Index has been nothing short of transformational.”

When it was introduced, the Higg Index was innovative. The fashion industry had struggled to measure its impact on people and the environment, and now there was a tool that could do just that. Even better, the Higg Index was backed by major brands and retailers, meaning it could achieve the universal acceptance SAC was hoping for. The Higg Index and its organization, Higg Co — an offshoot of SAC — have been instrumental in spreading the message about sustainability as well. When the tool was first introduced, sustainability was still a niche subject that brands were just beginning to experiment with. Now brands and consumers are implementing sustainability initiatives and creating new solutions so quickly that organizations like the SAC and Higg Co almost seem outdated.

Just because it was innovative does not mean everyone is a fan.

In the past year, the Higg Index has come under fire from sustainability experts who say the tool is not comprehensive or transparent enough. In August, the results from a four-year study at the University of California, Berkeley concluded that the Higg Index and the Higg Facility Environmental Module — a part of the Index which measures an apparel facility’s environmental management capabilities — were inadequate. Two of the researchers involved in the study even went as far as to call the Higg Index a “scale without a diet,” saying a brand measuring their sustainable performance without making any changes is like someone weighing themselves on a scale and not going on a diet to change their weight. The researchers, Dara O’ Rourke and Niklas Lollo, suggested that Higg Co make the Index more transparent so manufacturers and brands can see their competitor’s measurements, leading to improvements as companies compete for the title of “most sustainable.” Niklas Lollo is now a consultant with Higg Co, and a representative for the SAC said the organization is working on becoming more transparent with the measurements so other companies, and potentially consumers, can see scores.

The Index is being updated to match current environmental standards.

The SAC has no interest in being stuck in its old ways. In addition to providing more transparency with the Higg Facility Environmental Module, the coalition has also promised an updated edition of the Higg Product Module — another part of the Higg Index. The current Product Module includes an “aggregated single score” for materials. This means material sustainability is measured solely on the environmental cost of its production, rather than its entire life cycle, including end of life. Recently, brands and consumers have become just as concerned about waste production as they are about greenhouse gas emissions and natural resource usage. The retirement of a single score will make the Product Module more comprehensive. This is good news for leather producers who are now getting their way after complaining about the single score system previously. Last month, a group of leather industry leaders wrote a letter saying, “In the quest for improved sustainability, manufacturers will reference the Higg Index when designing products and making choices on materials. On the basis of current Higg score, these manufacturers are deselecting leather in favour of fossil fuel-derived, unsustainable synthetic products. As such, we believe that the reputation and viability of leather and leather manufacturers is being unfairly damaged by an assessment that does not reflect the true nature of leather or indeed, the alternatives.” The new Product Module will force brands using the Higg Index to consider all materials and maybe lead to the development of more innovative textiles with fewer negatives.

The Bottom Line:

The Higg Index may have been innovative a decade ago, but now it faces pressure to improve and expand, or risk being designated as an outdated program. But, as much as critics may threaten the SAC and Higg Co, the Index will remain widely used until an adequate replacement exists. Brands and other sustainable fashion companies will have to fill in the gaps left open by the Higg Index until an improved version or replacement can be implemented.