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
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 Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) and European Outdoor Groups’ Eco Index,
- the Nike Materials Sustainability Index (MSI); and
- the Global Social Compliance Program’s (GSCP) Environmental Reference Tools.
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.
- Need an overview of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition … click here
- Go further back in time in: China Water Risk talks to Patagonia about the origins of the Sustainability Apparel Coalition Index and its vision
Read more from Jason Kibbey →