The outdoor industry’s leading tool for measuring its environmental impacts is under fire. Higg’s Senior VP of Market Impact, Del Hudson, responds to the recent controversy and critique surrounding the Higg Materials Sustainability Index (MSI).
Our mission at Higg is to provide businesses with the tools and data they need to make informed choices to address environmental and social impact across their value chains. We are proud to host scalable assessments, methodologies, and datasets from a range of partners to meet the demands of climate pledges and science-based targets across industries.
In the last few weeks, the Higg Materials Sustainability Index (MSI), and by extension, Higg, has been critiqued for supposedly favoring synthetic over natural materials and enabling organizations to share misleading environmental information. Neither of these challenges is accurate. As a result, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), which owns and develops the Higg MSI, paused its customer-facing transparency pilot while they work with agencies and regulators to better understand how to substantiate product-level claims. This has no effect on designers’ ability to leverage the insights within product design tools like the MSI and Product Module.
Higg MSI: An industry-leading tool on environmental impact
The materials featured in a garment contribute predominantly to the environmental impact of clothes, so designers and brands must focus on choosing the most sustainably manufactured material needed for the particular product being designed. Higg provides access to insights so decision-makers can assess and compare the cradle-to-gate impacts of different materials. The Higg MSI provides access to data submitted from the industry and leading life cycle assessment databases to calculate environmental impacts and translate them into comparable Higg MSI scores, within material categories. When layered with other Higg tools, like the Higg Product Module, the added context provides industry-leading measurement of a materials’ environmental impact.
The apparel industry is under immense pressure to show rapid and meaningful progress on climate and social impact. As I write, Western Europe is on fire and Great Britain recently experienced a heat wave of proportions never before recorded. The need for progress could not be more urgent. It’s imperative that we stay the course while continuing to run market tests and seek new data in pursuit of the perfect solution. The journey to make progress is not always pretty, and the criticism of the Higg MSI’s limitations reminds us of this. However, scrutiny delivers both a learning opportunity and reason to celebrate an inflection point. Ten years ago, no materials assessment tool existed. The fact we’re now debating data gaps and improvement opportunities signals a growing recognition of the need for tools like this and the importance of stakeholder collaboration.
A tool’s effectiveness depends on context
Science is an iterative process by its very nature. And there is a constant danger of taking data out of its proper context. Dams and reservoirs, for example, can have negative impacts on water quality. Wind power can impact bird migrations. Neither of these solutions is intrinsically good or bad, yet they may be good or bad for a particular situation. The same applies to materials data in the apparel industry, particularly when we look at it through the lens of life cycle analysis. The goal isn’t to advocate for one material over another, rather to ensure that any material selected is produced with the lowest impact possible. And this matters most when considering global material use by volume.
There will always be room for improvement. As a data company, we will continue to collaborate with innovators to provide the best insights available in an unrelenting effort to radically reduce industry impacts. There is no time for delay, and while we will always welcome feedback that leads to positive improvements, we also stand firmly behind the best-in-class tools Higg offers today to measure, manage, and share the environmental impact data of materials, from production, to use and re-use.
Lead Photo: Article questioning HIGG MSI from the New York Times.