Since 2009, major players and competitors from the textile industry have tried to collaborate on the quest for the ideal tool to assess and improve their environmental impact. Suston tells the story about the birth, obstacles and comeback of the Higg Index.

The Higg Index might appear a bit technocratic, but as is often the case in business, the project grew out of personal relations. In 2009, Walmart, America’s largest retailer, was advised by the sustainability consulting agency Blu Skye. Its founder was the world-class rafting guide Jib Ellison, who was a friend of Yvon Chouinard and Rick Ridgeway from Patagonia. At a big Walmart gathering about sustainability, Chouinard gave a talk. After the meeting, moved by Chouinard’s vision, Walmart’s senior VP for apparel sourcing Mary Fox asked Ridgeway whether Patagonia could help them develop their environmental strategy and reduce their impact.

At the time, Patagonia was working on a tool to measure the sustainability of member companies in the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) in North America. Patagonia then developed a score card to help Walmart measure the impact of their supply chain. The thought popped into Ridgeway’s mind: “What if we combined the two approaches to build an even more robust tool and scale it with other companies?”

Patagonia and Walmart then decided to invite ten major brands, all fierce competitors, in an effort to collectively change the industry through the creation of a “standardized sustainability measurement tool.”

One CEO said that when he received the letter and saw the logos of Patagonia and Walmart next to each other “it was so bizarre that I had to check it out.”

But the pitch made good sense: “Standardization will enable us to maximize sustainability benefits for all buyers without investing in multiple sustainability technologies and certification processes, and ultimately empower consumers to trust claims regarding sustainably sourced apparel. Finally, as an industry, we will benefit from the unique opportunity to shape policy and create standards for measuring sustainability before government inevitably imposes one.”

An unlikely match

If Patagonia had maximum trust regarding sustainability, the opposite could be said about Walmart. Nike, for instance, was very reluctant to accept the invitation. But step by step, all the selected companies were convinced Walmart had serious intentions. The first official meeting in 2010 welcomed representatives from international giants like H&M, Levi’s, Marks & Spencer and Nike, but also the Environmental Defense Fund and nonprofit labor-rights group Verite. Thereafter, the nonprofit organization The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) was born, with the aim to become the textile industry’s leading alliance for sustainable production.

The logic behind so-called pre-competitive collaborations is easy to understand, especially when it comes to sustainability. Instead of every company developing their own methods, questionnaires, indexes, code of conducts, audits etc., and risking that the suppliers and manufactures drown in administration, a common system would be much more effective.

The idea that there should be industry standards on how to measure, evaluate and improve how companies perform regarding sustainability was not new. In fact, the textile industry was – and still is – many years behind other industries. With its myriad of material suppliers, manufacturers and products, the level of control was much lower than in the car industry, for instance.

When the SAC was founded in 2010, they didn’t have to start from scratch; the OIA had their Eco-Index that SAC could take over and develop. Already in 2011, the first Higg* Index was launched.

In the following year, Nike donated their Nike Considered Index to the SAC, which was relaunched as the Higg Materials Sustainability Index.

Over the coming years, the index was developed into a suite of tools that would enable brands, retailers, and facilities to accurately measure and score a company’s and/or product’s sustainability performance – at every stage on their sustainability journey.

However, it wasn’t always a smooth ride. Even competitors who truly want to work together can of course have very different opinions on how it should be done. Small and medium sized companies complained the tools were too expensive and complex for them. In 2016, an article published in the Guardian pointed out the fact the Index was difficult to use and Nike’s representative argued at the time that for “technical, boring IT reasons,” Nike monitored its supply chain using its own software.

New momentum and new organization

For a time, it seemed like the Higg Index was something only the sustainability managers cared about when they met up at yet another SAC presentation, in some far away conference room at the international trade shows.

But in recent years, many people within the industry feel that there is once again a momentum building around the Higg Index. The reason is simple: the outdoor customer is starting to ask questions about sustainability – and public opinion has started to demand change from every industry. Now, marketing managers and even CEO’s have started to show up at the SAC presentations.

Ten years after the birth of this industry collaboration, it is time for the next big step. In 2019, SAC has let the Higg Index spin off into a new for-profit entity called Higg Co, headed by Jason Kibbey, who was formerly CEO of the SAC.

While still majority-owned by SAC, Higg Co. has received investment from Titan Grove, Buckhill Capital and Sanjeev Bahl of Saiburg B.V, to achieve a faster and more efficient rollout of the Higg Index.

“We will focus on supporting and developing the technology that underpins the Higg Index, as well as expand and scale up the index,” explains Kibbey, adding that the technical focus was made even more urgent as the volume of users had increased significantly.

“In 2016 we had about 4,000 facilities using the index, now it’s 14,000. As for the brand tool, we moved from about 50 brands to several hundreds.”

Other priority missions on the agenda are to finalize the third version of the Higg Brand & Retail Module and improve user experience. Kibbey also underlines the fact that the collaboration between Higg Co and SAC will remain very close.

Open up to consumers

As for the SAC, it will continue to focus on the member-driven aspects of the coalition, such as overseeing the Higg Index Product Roadmap and Higg Index Verification Program. Amina Razvi is the new SAC Executive Director, she explains:

“Next year, we will complete the full Higg Index suite – all the tools the Coalition has currently developed will be available online, a milestone for our organization. We’re also exploring how to make the Higg Index data available publicly in an accessible way. To offer sustainability information to consumers and stakeholders at various levels of curiosity and to help them make more informed purchasing decisions.”

The most striking feature remains the original ambition of the SAC: to create a common language to evaluate environmental impact, and to do so through the cooperation of a wide variety of actors across the industry.

When asked about the evolution of the textile industry, Kibbey is both enthusiastic and highly realistic:

“There is a tremendous amount to be done yet. But when I started working at the SAC seven years ago, there were only a handful of companies that had the capacity to move the needle on sustainability and now there are hundreds,” says Kibbey and continues:

“Companies today have an awareness of the impact they make. The engagement of the industry is both broad and deep and moving very quickly. There’s been a definite change of consciousness. However, we still have to do the work. The next task will be for them to move from that sea-level awareness, to transform themselves into companies that are fully sustainable.”

Samuel Dixneuf
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