But after the Norway Consumer Authority dealt a blow to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s inaugural consumer-facing transparency program last month (powered by Higg’s Material Sustainability Index), the future of sustainability labeling for clothes became more uncertain.
Major brands and retailers like H&M, Amazon, C&A and more, had signed on to the initial program either displaying the seal or product scorecard, some going so far as to list it on product pages. But once media pressure mounted after Norway’s disfavoring view, the SAC made the decision to halt the program for all. A spokesperson from Amazon confirmed the Higg Index Materials seal was removed from its e-commerce pages, while C&A confirmed its involvement in the sustainability program despite setbacks.
Reality Check for Industry Transparency
“If we really take a step back, what is important for the SAC, and for our members is to understand how we credibly communicate this type of information to consumers, so that they have trusted, credible data to make more informed decisions,” the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s chief executive officer, Amina Razvi, told WWD. “While I think we’re all probably a little disappointed at the pause, we understand that it’s important to do so to help us evolve the program and the tools and really understand where regulation is going.”
As a driving force of industry with its membership boasting combined revenues of more than $750 billion, the SAC has skin in the game.
“The SAC is one actor, right, we are one actor in this broader ecosystem to drive change. And we basically have over the past 12 years developed tools that we believe are a useful part of driving change across the industry,” Razvi said. “But we completely recognize that we are not the only system out there, and we’re not the only multistakeholder initiative. And what we don’t want to do, and this has been kind of core and central to the SAC from the beginning, is we don’t want to duplicate efforts.”
Razvi said SAC’s methods are “constantly in evolution” which is a consistent response to the mounting criticism around tools like the Higg MSI.
Since June 21 (just days after the NCA news), Higg email-marketed a survey to better comprehend user needs around compliance and sustainability, offering up the chance to win one of two $500 Visa gift cards for input. In bold lettering, “Trusted Sustainability Data” appears to the right of the Higg logo on the survey page. As part of the SAC’s broader steps toward repair, it plans to conduct a third-party review of the Higg MSI.
Razvi reassured that, “Other tools in the Higg Index suite of tools are [continuing] to be used and deployed and the MSI can continue to be used as a valid b-to-b tool… I think that’s a really important distinction, because what we’re talking about is how you translate information and environmental impacts when it comes to consumers, not how the tools are used from a business perspective. We see this as an opportunity, because we believe in consumer-facing transparency as a lever for change. This is an opportunity to really work with stakeholders, regulators and critics around how the industry does that in a clear, consistent, credible way.”
What It Means for Circular Policy
As the SAC’s tools are ever-evolving, so too, is policy.
Dr. Kerry Senior, director at Leather UK, a trade advocacy group for the sector, weighed in on both topics since the group has been one of many (as well as the International Council of Tanners, Leather & Hide Council of America, and International Sericultural Commission, among others) challenging the methodology of the tools.
Though Leather UK is not a paying member of the Higg Index and does not have access to its full data set, Senior along with the International Council of Tanners, headed discussions with the SAC to encourage use of new data for leather. He said the groups presented the nonprofit with new U.S. data on the economic allocation of livestock, claiming Higg was going to provide a disclosure on its platform saying its leather data is “out of date” while it looked to refresh inputs. Higg has said it aims to update data twice a year to include new and updated data submissions that reflect best-available information.
That data refresh never happened, and Senior believes “with the revelations on Norway [Consumer Authority], that door [for updated leather data] has now been very firmly shut…At the moment that’s not something they want to progress.”
The SAC still plays an important role in assisting the technical secretariat to the European Commission aiding how circular fashion policy is shaped.
Duration of service — or the expected lifetime of fashion and footwear — is rolled up into the EU’s strategy. In the EU’s draft proposal for its Product Environmental Footprint, clothing and footwear is divided into 13 categories and assigned average wear data, with four categories for shoes and nine for clothing. In the draft, the given lifetime of a boot is 100 wears, for example, while open-toed shoes (like flip-flops) are 50 wears. The difference is that a hiking boot with a lifetime warranty and a fast-fashion boot deemed for nights out could carry the same wear value, meaning consumers may wrongly assume products last longer than they will or prematurely discard well-made products, again stoking consumption. Senior alleged it was a “completely artificial score” because it doesn’t represent the life cycle of footwear and apparel accurately. The draft proposal was prepared by data firm Quantis Zürich, with the SAC as technical secretariat coordinator and H&M, Inditex, Nike and Lacoste among brand feedback providers.
In effort to supply better data, Leather UK is working with The Shoe and Trainer Research Association on the duration of service issue.
“I think that speaks to the whole Higg philosophy,” Senior said, “They try to make a system that covers everything and it doesn’t work. It will never work.”