How environmentally sustainable is fashion?

This story first appeared in the July 26, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

It’s a complex question that touches everything from ethics to consumer perception to bottom lines, and it’s one that the industry, in an ever-greener world, is not up to answering just yet.

“We’re several years away from being able to answer that comprehensively,” said Jason Kibbey, executive director of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. “Right now, it’s impossible to get a really clear picture.”

That’s something the trade group wants to change starting today, when it will unveil the Higg Index — a three-part scoring system that will help apparel and footwear firms comprehensively measure their ecological footprint.

The index is based on the Outdoor Industry Association’s Eco Index and Nike’s Material Assessment Tool, and is freely available. Companies can download an Excel spreadsheet from the coalition at and determine their own sustainability score, which can then be used to benchmark progress and steer a more sustainable path.

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The index’s name is illustrative of the challenges that come from working with a wide variety of interests and in 100-plus countries. After months of back-and-forth, the group settled on the Higg Index, taking inspiration from the Higgs boson, a long-sought-after and recently discovered elementary particle that is believed to give all things mass. The name suggested an attention to granular detail and didn’t come off poorly in any language or suggest a particular affiliation.

More than 63 companies have been beta testing the index for a year, and the trade group’s members make up more than a third of the global apparel and footwear market. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition has a diverse member base, including Adidas, Bureau Veritas, Columbia Sportswear Co., Gap Inc., Hennes & Mauritz, J.C. Penney Co. Inc., Li & Fung, Nike Inc., Nordstrom Inc., the University of Delaware, VF Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

“We have already been able to use the Higg Index as an environmental indicator in the production of many of our products by all brands,” said Karin Ekberg, head of environmental services at Adidas, which helped test the index. “We intend for the Higg Index to form an increasingly important part of our overall product creation and production strategy in the years to come.”

Right now, the Higg Index focuses on water use and quality, energy and greenhouse gas, waste, chemicals and toxicity. Next year, social and labor issues will be added. The goal is to eventually create a standard and a verification system that companies can use to not only do an environmental gut check but to communicate how sustainable their goods are to consumers.

The index has three parts:

• A brand module that zeros in on details such as how goods are designed and whether or not product life cycle, transportation and the use of restricted substances are taken into account.

• A product module that looks at the sustainability of fabrics, how much waste is left on the cutting-room floor, what finishes are used and so on.

• A facilities module that examines areas such as how factories deal with wastewater and how much energy is consumed.

“You would get a pretty good sense [of a company’s sustainability] just by taking the assessment,” Kibbey said. “It gives you both a snapshot, and it also implies where you need to go tomorrow to make an improvement.”

Kibbey stressed the importance of taking an overall look at sustainability, since a shirt made of 100 percent organic cotton could be processed in an environmentally unfriendly facility and transported inefficiently and leave a relatively large ecological footprint. On the other hand, a shirt made of a less eco-friendly material could be handled differently and come up with a better sustainability score.

“This looks holistically and tries to make a judgment of the whole impact of the product rather than just go with the trend of the day,” he said. “This tries to give really a long-term view.”

However sustainable the fashion world is today, any improvement it makes is likely to have an impact.

“Apparel and footwear is a $1 trillion industry,” Kibbey said. “That is going to make a significant impact [on the environment], so no matter how green we are today or how green we’ll be tomorrow, the fact is that it will still be an industry that will be really big and will have an impact.”

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