Materials Sustainability in the Higg Index

By Ines Sousa, Ryan Young 9 December, 2013

SAC's Sousa & Young on the inclusion of Nike's Materials Sustainability Index & its implications for water, SAC's Sousa & Young on the inclusion of Nike's Materials Sustainability Index & its implications for water

Over 8 years of research in Nike's MSI is now within the Higg Index; impact of raw materials can now be assessed
Qualitative & quantative water intensity evaluations to help rank materials re potential impacts from water use
Brands & suppliers can make choices to minimise water impacts & re-input feedback data to improve the MSI tool
Ines Sousa
Author: Ines Sousa
Ines Sousa, Environmental Sustainability Manager Ines has a background in life cycle assessment (LCA) for product design and more than 10 years of experience connecting sustainability with business and digital tools. Most recently, Ines worked for ENXSuite, an energy and sustainability performance management software company, leading its sustainability services offered to customer companies and providing expertise to the executive team, product managers, and partners. She was also a strategic advisor for NRDC to create the Cloud of Commitments, a civil society-initiated open source project designed to assist the international community in tracking and aggregating sustainability commitments worldwide. Previously, Ines co-founded Sustainable Minds, a green product design software company pioneering on-demand LCA software for early product design phases. Ines earned her Ph.D. in LCA for Product Design and her Master of Engineering in Environmental and Water Quality Engineering from MIT. She also holds a BS in Environmental Engineering from the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Portugal.
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Ryan Young
Author: Ryan Young
Ryan Young, Index Manager Ryan has a background in management and strategy consulting, and in recent years has focused his energy on sustainability issues. Prior to joining SAC, Ryan worked for Blu Skye Consulting, where he worked with the U.S. dairy industry on greenhouse gas reduction efforts; he led a large project focused on increasing renewable energy generated from cow manure. Ryan also has experience working for BearingPoint, Ernst & Young, and Law and Economics Consulting Group. Ryan earned his BA in Economics from Cornell University and his MBA in Strategy and Marketing from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He has also taught an MBA class focused on sustainable marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.
Read more from Ryan Young →

The Materials Sustainability Index (MSI) is a practical tool that scores materials based on their environmental impacts from raw materials extraction to post-manufacture processing. It was originally created by Nike and is a result of more than eight years of materials research and analysis. In 2012, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) incorporated the MSI into the Higg Index 1.0 to help assess the environmental impacts of materials and materials supplier practices in the apparel and footwear supply chains.

The MSI web tool, which was created in conjunction with Nike, was released in June 2013 and can be found here. This new tool gives greater insight into the data used to calculate the MSI scores and is a means for anyone to share new MSI data.

Here China Water Risk talks to Ines Sousa (Manager, Environmental Sustainability) and Ryan Young (Vice President, Higg Index) of the SAC talk about how companies can use the MSI and the new MSI web tool to assess the water and environmental impact of its products. Changes from Higg Index 1.0 to 2.0 are also covered in the interview below. 

CWR: What is the MSI and how does it link with the Higg Index?

SAC: The MSI is a cradle-to-gate index informed by life cycle assessment (LCA) derived inventory data to engage product design teams and the global supply chain of the apparel and footwear products in the environmental sustainability of materials. It was originally developed by Nike for more than eight years based on materials research and analysis of a wide range of processed materials, including textiles and footwear component materials. In July 2012, it was adapted by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and incorporated into the Higg Index.

The MSI scope does not include consumer use or end-of-life reuse. The cradle-to-gate life cycle covered by the MSI spans the origin of raw materials to a finished textile or footwear component part, ready to be shipped to a product manufacturing facility. It is divided into two phases.

  • Phase 1: Farm, forest or wellhead to an intermediate stage. Generally for most textiles, the intermediate stage is characterized as a cone of yarn.
  • Phase 2: The intermediate stage to the finished textile. This phase includes the manufacture of greige goods as well as dyeing and finishing.

MSI Index1The MSI allocates evenly points to the quantitative score and the qualitative questions and across environmental impact areas: Chemistry, Energy and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Intensity, Water and Land Use Intensity, and Physical Waste.

The MSI is “an index within the Higg Index”.  It is used within the Higg Index to help assess the environmental sustainability of the physical materials used to make a product. For each of the 46 materials in the MSI, a quantitative score we call “base material score” is calculated using a representative supply chain and is based on publicly disclosed Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) studies, industry reports and supplier-derived information. This quantitative score is supplemented by qualitative questions that address material attributes and specific supplier practices (e.g., organic or recycled content, reduced-water dyeing) to compensate for gaps in LCA or supply chain data and scenarios used to derive the base material score.  The MSI quantitative score combined with the material attributes and specific supplier practices allow for a more robust means of assessing the environmental sustainability of the materials in the Higg Index.

MSI Index2

In June 2013, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition released the MSI web tool.  This interactive new data platform dramatically increases transparency into how the quantitative scores of the MSI are derived and is a means for anyone to share new MSI data.

We are currently piloting an open and transparent data submission, review and publish process at the industry level using the MSI web tool platform and SAC’s submission requirements and guidelines. This pilot is testing the scalability of the MSI database and scoring at a sector level using this platform, as opposed to how it was originally created, by Nike, a single company in the value chain.

CWR: Why do you think Nike decided to make public such valuable proprietary information?

SAC: The Nike MSI was the result of more than eight years of materials research and analysis, drawing on the best publicly available information on materials.  Nike recognizes that many sustainability issues are difficult to address as a single organization, and that collaboration is often essential for bringing meaningful change.  To that end, they made the Nike MSI available to the public in order to stimulate an open discussion about how best to evaluate materials and to enable the creation of more sustainable products throughout the industry.

CWR: How can the MSI help combat water related issues and risks in the textiles industry?

SAC: The MSI allows organizations to approximately evaluate and rank materials for potential impacts from water use. These are based on a quantitative indicator that approximates water use by a representative supply chain, as well as a qualitative indicator rewarding the use of water efficient dyeing and coloring processes by the material supplier.  By using the MSI to assess materials, any organization in the textile industry can focus on water through these indicators to help make materials and supplier choices that minimize water-related impacts. The MSI is a cradle-to-gate index informed by life cycle assessment (LCA) derived inventory data to engage product design teams and the global supply chain of the apparel and footwear products in the environmental sustainability of materials.

In the Higg Index, in addition to the MSI in the Product Module, water issues are addressed in the Facility Module (Water Use and Wastewater sections).

CWR: How does the MSI help companies consider water when selecting materials in the design phase?

SAC: The MSI can help address water issues by empowering textile designers and more broadly their organizations to learn about and make directionally better material and supplier choices.

“The MSI can help address water issues by empowering textile designers…

… to learn about and make directionally better material and supplier choices.”

As mentioned earlier, water issues in the MSI are directly addressed via the quantitative indicator “Water Intensity” (maximum of 9.4 points), and the qualitative indicator “Reduced Water Use in Dyeing and Coloring” that supports water conservation goals and water efficient technologies (maximum of 10 points). Lower water impacts are reflected by higher MSI scores.

The “Water Intensity” indicator covers primary process water, such as irrigation for agricultural crops. Rainfall is not included in the water calculations for agricultural crops, nor is the water embodied in significant chemical substances or capital equipment. Where PlasticsEurope Eco-Profile data are used, water includes cooling water. Overall, the calculations for “Water Intensity” follow typical life cycle inventory conventions for processes.

The qualitative question “Reduced Water Use in Dyeing and Coloring” rewards the supplier’s best practice that supports water conservation goals and water efficient technologies.

CWR: So is the MSI intended to be a substitute for life cycle assessment (LCA) studies?

SAC: The short answer is NO.

We have gone into lots of detail on what the MSI is, but it is important to also know what the MSI is not. The MSI is not a LCA tool nor is intended to be a substitute for LCA studies. MSI’s approach to weighting and assigning a single score does not conform to standard LCA methods.

CWR: The intention is for the MSI to be operated as an open creative commons, where companies can remix, tweak and build upon the database, just like Wikipedia. But, how do you ensure accuracy of the data posted?

SAC: Data transparency and integrity are critical to adoption and use of the MSI. For external/creative commons submissions of data to the MSI, we are currently piloting a process for data submission and review using the MSI web tool and an independent 3rd party “Data Gatekeeper” that the SAC has contracted. This Data Gatekeeper is responsible for critically reviewing data submissions according to the MSI Review Protocol to ensure that the data is scientifically and technically valid and the methods used to carry out the data submissions are consistent with the MSI Data Submission Requirements and Guidelines. These documents are publicly available on the SAC’s website here. We will adjust the process accordingly after learnings from this pilot with the ultimate goal of striving to have more and better data over time and make as transparent as possible the data submission and review process.

CWR: What have been the key impacts/success stories of the Higg Index since its launch in 2012? Baring these successes in mind, as the MSI is an index within the Higg Index, how do you expect it to be received by your members?

SAC: We have been extremely impressed with the adoption of the Higg Index 1.0 since its launch in July 2012.  Many of our Members are using it to not only assess their own environmental performance, but also assess their supply chains.  Some organizations have rolled out the Facility Module to hundreds of their suppliers, and as a result have begun to engage with these suppliers on sustainability using a common framework.  We also have anecdotal evidence of many non-Members using the Index as well.

We recently conducted a benchmarking exercise where we received 28 Brand Modules and 132 Facility Modules representing 22 countries.  The SAC was able to calculate benchmarks and share these learnings with our Members, highlighting areas of success and areas of opportunity at both the brand and facility levels.

One key learning for the SAC and our Members from the Higg Index 1.0 is that assessing a product with the Product Module has been challenging.  We are taking these learnings and incorporating them into a longer term plan to improve the way we assess products in future versions.

There continues to be strong demand for a comprehensive way to assess the sustainability impacts of materials.  This demand comes from multiple audiences: designers, developers, sourcing, and corporate social responsibility.  Ultimately, demand for transparency is also driven by governments, nonprofits, and consumers themselves.  The SAC expects that materials will continue to be an area of focus for the Index and our Members.  The Materials Sustainability Index is a great platform for beginning to explore the impacts from materials, and we anticipate widespread adoption of the MSI. This adoption will in turn drive increased interest in improving the MSI methodology over time as well as contributing with data on additional materials.

CWR: What future developments do you have planned?

SAC: At the SAC we believe in a philosophy of “rapid prototyping”.  We don’t wait for our products to be perfect before we release them.  Rather, we work quickly with our Members to develop a prototype, release it to the market, and adapt based on feedback from the market.

When we released the Higg Index 1.0 in July 2012, we were already aware of several areas for development, and have received some additional areas based on feedback from Members and others after they used 1.0.

Since the release of the Higg Index 1.0 in July 2012, we have been actively working towards improving the Index for the next release.  The Higg Index 2.0 is scheduled to be released in December 2013.  We are incorporating several dramatic changes that we expect will greatly increase ease-of-use, adoption, and value to Index users.  These changes include:

  • Moving the Higg Index from an Excel-based tool to a web-based tool with data-sharing capabilities
  • Adding content to the Index that assesses the social/labor dimension of sustainability
  • Adding content to the Index that is more specific to footwear products (rather than apparel)
  • Adding materials to the Materials Sustainability Index and improving the quality of data – currently we have 46 materials
  • The goal for the Higg Index is to evolve over subsequent versions to incorporate actual environmental performance (e.g., quantitative metrics) in addition to the programme- or practiced-based questions.
  • The SAC is actively working to develop the standard sets of rules (Product Category Rules) to enable rapid, scaleable data collection.

 Further Reading

  • For the MSI website tool … click here
  • Fashion Update! Brand Winners & Sinners – With the new Phase III Textiles Investigative Report released by 7 China NGOs, we look at who has managed to stay on top since April 2012
  • To Dye or Not to Dye – Elisa Sellam & Sushil Hada, from Birla Cellulose, discuss how their new SpunDyed VSF process uses less water & produces less pollution than traditional piece dyed VSF process
  • Sustainable Apparel Coalition – The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) is an informally governed coalition with an initial goal of developing and road testing a sustainability index. Participating organizations formed SAC believing there was opportunity for a more sustainable and innovative apparel and footwear industry
  • Higg Index: The Challenges of Measurement – The Higg Index, launched in July this year is a tool developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s (SAC) membership. Jason Kibbey, SAC’s Executive Director walks us through its development
  • Patagonia’s Take on the SAC – Patagonia talks to China Water Risk about the origins of the Sustainability Apparel Coalition Index and its vested interest as one of the leaders in reducing environmental footprint
  • China Water Woes: The End of Fast Fashion? – Lincoln Poon, Global Brand Manager of Pinneco Research worries about water, the fast fashion business & global dependence on made-in-China products: can it last?
  • H&M: Water Stewardship in Fashion – Claire Hau tells us why water is important to H&M and how it is pioneering water stewardship in fashion from its work with BSR & IPE, partnership with WWF, to its commitment to ban hazardous chemicals by 2020
  • See what else is happening in the textiles industry in our Intelligence by Sector section