Episode 48: What is the HIGG index? and why has Norway banned its use in marketing?
Higg Index, Material Sustainability Index, Sustainable Apparel Coalition, Greenwashing, Polyester, Cotton, Life Cycle Assessment LCA’s, environmental impact.
Welcome to the Fashion Unearthed podcast. If you need help navigating the fashion industry sustainably, you have come to the right place. I'm your host Belinda Humphrey and my hope is to simplify the fashion industry so that businesses can make the best decisions for people, planet and product.
Hello, and welcome to episode 48 of the Fashion Unearthed podcast. My voice is back. So I'm back with another episode and this one is about something that is making waves in the fashion industry. But before I get to that, a quick little reminder to sign up to my monthly newsletter. If you're a fashion business owner and interested in sustainability within fashion, go to belindahumphrey.com and you'll also get a free guide on 10 Quick, sustainable switches you can implement immediately in your product development and design process.
So onto today's episode, some of you might already know what Higg is but as a refresher, the Higg index is a set of five tools launched by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition in 2011 and it's designed to measure and compare the environmental impact of different materials lifecycle assessment LCA data. The topics include water use, carbon emission, and labour conditions.
So like I said, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition set up the index and the original collaborators that led to that were Patagonia and Walmart. Whilst the sustainable apparel coalition is a nonprofit, according to their website, to use the Higg suite of tools, it starts from $2,000 a year depending on the size of your business. Now within the set of five tools, there is one in particular called the Material Sustainability Index, the MSI and its purpose is to both internally quantify the impact of a material at design stage and use within customer facing marketing messaging. And it's this module in particular that has caused a stir firstly within the industry, farmers in particular, and now with the Norwegian Consumer Protection Authority, which I'll get to a little bit later.
But first, let's delve into that tool a little bit deeper. It reportedly just looks at the production of materials cradle to gate so to speak, nothing after the product entering the store is measured, which is confusing in itself because you would think a lifecycle assessment would include everything from raw materials to when it reaches the end of life. But that aside, why this is important is because of the impact of fossil fuel fibres down the line in the form of micro plastics, which can't biodegrade and end up either incinerated or in landfill for years is common knowledge, however, this area of impact isn't currently included.
Other criticisms of the underlying data which is very narrow, based on global averages, and doesn't accurately represent the overall sustainability of materials and data used to base the lifecycle assessment reports on were reportedly funded by the synthetics industry. But Jeremy Lardeau the SAC's vice president does openly admit that the SAC is not the source of any LCA data, they simply consolidate the best available LCA data in a single place and rely on the industry sectors and the practitioners for the data. And whilst that may be true, what happens when the best available data of material doesn't represent the whole of the industry of how that material is mostly made? According to an article by Intercept the Higg index uses a lifecycle analysis of polyester produced by plastics Europe, which gather data on European produced polyester from 2009. However, 93% of polyester is produced in Asia, where manufacturing and energy standards vary wildly between nations and companies.
Another example comes from the silk industry. Recently, the International Sericulture Commission an Indian government body representing the country's silk industry, registered an official complaint about Silk's score on the Higg index. They claimed that silk as a fibre is unfairly and inaccurately represented on the Materials Sustainability Index, saying that the Higg index indicates that silk is 30 times worse than polyester in terms of environmental sustainability factors. Now, Jeremy Lardeau has said before that it isn't intended to be used to compare across material categories only within material categories, such as organic versus conventional cotton. But if you listen to Episode 46 about the myths involved in cotton, in particular about organic using substantially less water than conventional cotton. You can see that there are many variables that influence the material and global averages can lead to misinformation. So it's not as clear cut as just keeping it between materials. And even though they've said it's not meant to be compared across material groups, if you put yourself in the customers shoes, what do you think they're likely to do with numbers on different products? And that's not even getting into who decides what the best available data is for each category to use on indexes.
So who's using this tool? Well, a lot of businesses. Over 500 brands including Nike, H&M, Amazon, Patagonia, and Zalando. According to Jeremy Lardeau, the Higg index user base has increased to 21,483 organisations across 119 countries, with membership covering approximately 40% of the apparel, footwear and home textiles industry. So that is a lot of the industry using this tool, which is why the latest ruling has a lot of businesses and people in the industry paying close attention to what happens next.
Just a week ago, Norwegian authorities ruled the Higg as unlawful, determining it misleads consumers. In a landmark case, it recently ruled that sportswear retailer Norrøna, I'm probably saying that wrong, that the use of The Higg labels breach advertising guidelines and is misleading to consumers. It says Norrøna has based its advertising on the industry tool Higg MSI, which measures the environmental impact of various textiles. The Norwegian Consumer Protection Authority has concluded that this tool is not sufficient as a basis for the environmental claims they have used in marketing. They go on to say we would like to emphasise that using the Higg MSI and or data from The Higg MSI, in marketing towards consumers will be considered misleading and constitute a breach of the Marketing Control Act. They even went as far to advise the Sustainable Apparel Coalition it could face economic sanctions in Norway, if similar Higg related breaches of its Marketing Control Act, as in the Norrøna case, are found after the first of September 2022 and remind them of their close collaboration with other countries consume authorities within the EU.
What a bombshell! Now the Higgs CEO Amina Razvi did respond to a New York Times article in particular that was reporting the finding, with a statement on their website saying amongst other things, that there is no favouritism of synthetic or natural fibres, and again, it wasn't designed to compare the two different materials and communication guidelines specifically prohibit doing that. And the aim of The Higg is to highlight hotspots of areas of improvement rather than a generalised measure of the sustainability of a material.
Ms Razvi also said that suggesting the LCA tool should not be used at all risks paralysing the industry and hindering process at a time when action must be accelerated. Well, as always, I will put the links to the articles in the show notes on the website in the podcast section, so you can read them for yourself. But you can see there is a bit of argy bargy going on. And I am also interested in just how this unfolds.
In summary, I think in concept the fashion industry does want a unified way to be able to measure and share their environmental impact. But I think the main issues that critics have with the system are valid. That for a tool that promises transparency to brands, they should be transparent with the underlying methodology and way of selecting data. Another criticism is that it's being developed within the industry rather than a third party unconnected to any sector. It's easy to think that there could be conscious or unconscious biases at play when choosing what data or study to include. And finally, that this and other systems are "pay to play", so to speak, that it isn't freely available to businesses. Obviously, there are costs involved to set up something like this. But perhaps there is another way to fund it that's more impartial and allows businesses of all sizes access.
So what did you think of all that? Have you heard of the Higg index before? I'd love to know what you thought of it, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or direct message or DM me on Instagram @belindahumphrey_ and again a reminder, you can sign up to my monthly newsletter by heading to my website belindahumphrey.com and like always, you'll find the show notes and any links on the website in the podcast section. Thanks so much for listening. See you next time.
Disclaimer: Whilst every effort is made to ensure that information is accurate at the time of recording, much like the fashion industry itself, this information may change.