Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley released a report on Monday which questions the validity of sustainability tools to transform the industry, as they exist today.
The four-year study spearheaded by UC Berkeley’s professor of environmental and labor policy, Dara O’Rourke; and PhD candidate Niklas Lollo focused on one tool in particular: the Higg Index, or rather its Higg Facility Environmental Module.
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition — which housed the Higg Index tools before the technology company Higg Co. was formed as a separate for-profit firm in May 2019 — granted researchers access to its complete data set, survey data from its leading facilities as well as several case studies, to inform the research.
While the independent research acknowledged how the “Higg Index has laid an important foundation for factory measurement” it found that “its effectiveness in driving real action has been limited by slow progress on transparency and a lack of incentives between buyers and factories.”
“After 11 years with unsatisfactory improvements in environmental outcomes, there remains a healthy and substantial skepticism of the Higg Index, the SAC, and the industry’s ability to drive substantial changes on their own,” the report read, adding “the SAC and the industry need to include public transparency and meaningful incentives to drive greater changes.”
The extent of public disclosures and transparency is a line straddled by every industry standard-setting body and regulator, and even more so as cracks in the system are widened from the coronavirus pandemic.
In the past, groups like the International Wool Textile Organization and Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development have made recommendations for the Higg Index. In the former, the wool organizations called for product life-cycle impacts in the Higg Materials Sustainability Index specifically around microplastics, in a 2018 report which criticized the “exclusion of impact categories” and data quality.
Earlier this August, the Higg MSI was updated to include a new “background LCA database” through software called GaBi, which includes information on plastics and has the potential for combing 12,700 data sets.
Calling for more than good intentions, the report cites a newfound urgency.
“While there is no doubt still need for high-touch capacity building programs, the industry needs to move to faster,” citing a “system with clear mechanism and incentives to identify and drive solutions at scale” that garners an inclusive approach and “meaningfully” includes “workers, communities, and stakeholders.”
“Stakeholders need to be involved in agenda-setting, directing resources and monitoring. On top of these efforts, real public transparency will help to build legitimacy, and will create additional incentives for action and innovation. It is time for the global apparel industry to take the next steps in driving sustainability deeply into core business processes and incentives,” the recommendations concluded.
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