Higg Index: The Challenges of Measurement

By Jason Kibbey 8 November, 2012

SAC’s Executive Director walks us through the development of the Higg Index

The Index measures 3 areas: brand, product & facilities
Years of work to reach a comprehensive sustainability scoring system from design, sourcing to end-of-life
Only for use within the industry now with >1,000 users; intends to be customer-facing in the future

Three years ago, apparel industry leaders convened a small group of their peers with a simple message: this industry is woefully behind and needs to show leadership in addressing the sustainability challenges faced by the planet.

In its initial discussions, it was clear that the most impactful issue the fledgling coalition could address was measurement.  If a comprehensive scoring system for environmental impact – from sourcing to end-of-life – could be formed and broadly adopted, these leaders believed that they could for the first time identify and ultimately encourage broad environmental measures throughout the global apparel market.

Some background …

The founding desire to holistically measure each company’s sustainability impact brought together unlikely collaborators from throughout the industry in what would later become the Sustainable Apparel Coalition – a group that today represents nearly one-third of the world’s apparel and footwear dollars.

Seeing the need to unify a standard for environmental assessment, the group committed itself to designing and testing a new system for sustainability scoring, applicable for every company and organization in the field – and every point in the value chain – from independent makers to the largest of global brands.

Instead of producing a customer-facing “seal of approval,” the group aimed to put forth a measuring system that would yield a powerful tool for companies’ self-assessment: a score that approximates where a company is at in their sustainability efforts – and how it can improve.  It would also be aspirational, to scale for the future, challenging even the best performers of today to improve on their environmental impact.

This past July, the apparel and footwear industries received that new tool with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s public release of the Higg Index.

Behind the scenes …

While the Index has been freely available for only a few months, it represents years of organizational development upon a foundation made from three well-tested measurement systems.  Those three measures were:

The framework of the Eco Index brought a categorical value system that measured a company and a product’s impact. Nike’s MSI brought depth of materials assessment, and a set of standards that complimented the needs of the current generation of the index. Finally, the GSCP reference tools provided a framework for assessing the environmental impact of the facilities where apparel and footwear products are made.

From those formative works, the Apparel Coalition spent nearly 18 months developing and customizing the tools in order to produce a platform that could be used and scaled within the apparel supply chain.

One adaptation was the conversion of the Eco Index from an outdoor industry tool to one for the apparel industry at large. The conversion was so comprehensive and remained so relevant that the OIA later adopted the Higg Index as its new unit of sustainability measurement.

The Coalition also convened an international panel of sustainability experts from leading universities to review the Nike’s MSI to better apply its methodology across an entire industry. That work allowed for scalability and the ability to ensure usability from small brands to global leaders.

Upon the initial distribution to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s founding circle members in March of 2011, the Higg Index began a pilot program in order to field test the measurement system. Testing over more than 10 months brought initial feedback from manufacturers, suppliers and retailers – including suggestions for new ways of assessment, ideas of how organizations can best communicate measurement internally, and even opportunities for improving factory efficiency to improve Index scoring.

After that vital period of internal testing and improvement, in July the SAC publicly launched the Higg Index, in an effort to spur public adoption and testing.

Measuring success & challenges ahead …

To date, the Index has been downloaded and used by more than 1,000 organizations, spanning every segment of the apparel and footwear industry – a reflection of the growth in interest in sustainability measurement within apparel and footwear.

In its current form, the Higg Index is an Excel-based checklist for sustainability measurement across three critical areas: company brand, product and facilities. The brand module looks at overall practices and policies of companies as a whole, such as how a company designs for longevity, takeback and design. The product module evaluates materials, waste, and finishes. The facility module evaluates energy, water, and waste management on a facility level – or across multiple facilities.

Many of the Higg Index’s current elements are qualitative in nature, in an effort to reap immediate value from sustainability indicators and begin internalizing use of the tool within the industry.  Ultimately, the Higg Index scoring will shift to more quantitative measurement of sustainability factors, allowing for more precise insight into performance standards across a value chain.

Public communication of sustainability scoring remains a future goal of the Coalition, however, and in order to do that, the organization has to first improve the quality and quantity of the generated data as well as implement data validation and eventually third party verification measures. To comply with the legal standards of many of the largest apparel and footwear markets, data created from the tool will need to be verified before it can be communicated externally. For that reason, the current version of the Higg Index is exclusively for internal use within an organization, and companies are not allowed to communicate scores to the public.

Already, Coalition members are reporting value from using the Higg Index through reducing waste in their products, standardizing facilities assessment for sustainability, and developing future roadmaps for sustainability.

The Coalition expects the Index to grow increasingly robust in 2013, adding measurement in new areas like social impact along with more precise means of measurement that will ultimately add value to the tool and allow for more direct communication with the consumer market.

The more comprehensively the Higg Index can be adopted and tested, the more quickly the tool can be improved upon and iterated in order to make effective sustainability change in the apparel and footwear industry. For that reason, we encourage companies, academics, non-profits and the public at-large to download the Higg Index for free at www.apparelcoalition.org and begin exploring and integrating it into their own internal systems.  Our intent is that the lasting value of the Higg Index comes in creating lasting, quantifiable change within the industry.  We invite you to support us in this goal and share feedback from your experience.

Further Reading:

Jason Kibbey
Author: Jason Kibbey
Jason Kibbey is the Executive Director of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. Until recently, he was the CEO and co-founder of PACT, an apparel company combining design, sustainability, and philanthropy. He served as Co-Founder and Executive Director of Freedom to Roam, a non-profit initiative that brings together people, organizations and businesses to enhance and protect wildlife corridors and landscape connectivity in North America. While at business school, he worked at Patagonia developing Freedom to Roam. He started his career as an Associate Consultant at Bain & Company, where he worked on turnaround and product strategies for high-tech companies. Jason graduated from UC Berkeley with degrees in Environmental Economics and Policy and Religious Studies and received his MBA from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business in May 2008.
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