Jason Kibbey, CEO of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition

Jason Kibbey, CEO of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition

After working for the past seven years on a set of tools to measure the social and environmental impact of apparel and footwear production, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition has shared little evidence to suggest how, or even if, companies are using it. But the group is now ready to tackle transparency head-on with a raft of new activities and products, Jason Kibbey, CEO of the global alliance, tells just-style.

"We've been a little quiet about our activities and our planning, but we realised it wasn't doing anyone any favours…so we thought let's just be very clear about what our members have committed to," Kibbey explains. "And we find when we do make clear commitments it helps turn them into a stronger reality. It's what our members want and we felt it was the right time to be public and clear about it."

The Higg Index is the centrepiece of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), which launched in 2009 following an unconventional meeting of minds between value retail giant Walmart and outdoor brand Patagonia. The two companies agreed to encourage collaboration across the global apparel and textile sector to develop a universal approach to measuring the social and environmental impact of apparel and footwear production.

The group has over 180 members, including retailers, brands, suppliers, unions and academics, and the resulting suite of tools gauges environmental sustainability and allows suppliers, manufacturers, brands and retailers to evaluate materials, products, facilities and processes based on environmental choices. But until now there has been no public reporting on the data, and little evidence to suggest how, or even if, companies are using it to reduce their impact. 

The decision to turn supply chain transparency up a notch will take the form of a new roadmap releasing Higg Index scores to the public, with the first tranche of facilities data due to launch by mid-2018. A brand tool followed by a product tool will launch in 2019 and 2020, respectively, with the latter earmarked as the cut-off date for full public release of the Higg data. 

The exact formatting of how the roadmap will look and how it might be summarised is something the coalition is still working on, Kibbey says. "We want to do this in a coordinated way so we can ensure it creates value for the brand, that it doesn't confuse consumers, and that the information released is very credible. We want to make sure we're doing it in a way that essentially ticks all those boxes and can then be the foundation for more information releases down the road."

The facilities tool was the obvious choice for the first module launch given its data verification is the furthest along, and is just entering its third revision. Testing and trials on the brand and product tools are set to be rolled out next year. 

Of course imparting information through the tool is entirely voluntary, so will brands only release the good data? "That's absolutely one of the things we are focusing on right now: how do we ensure that balance? That is a critical issue and something we have spent quite a bit of time on."

SAC centrepiece

In addition to the new facilities tool, textile suppliers will now be able to submit materials data into the Higg's Materials Sustainability Index (MSI) through a newly-launched MSI Contributor. The move is designed to allow SAC to expand data around materials sustainability to inform design, development and sourcing decisions for its members.

"We've overhauled the MSI and incorporated the most up-to-date science, essentially the policy development direction from the product environmental footprinting, and lots of user and stakeholder feedback," Kibbey explains. "Now we want to populate it with new material information. Later we will be launching our design and development module and will then use this information in the future for basic footprinting. So this information will be used in a multitude of ways." 

The challenge of success

But while Kibbey is confident the SAC has all of its ducks in a row when it comes to innovation, he is only too aware of the challenges in ensuring the new products are a success. Ongoing policy uncertainty and the UK's vote to leave the European Union (EU) are two, in particular, he points to. 

"Brexit has thrown a lot of things into question, so we need to make sure we're aligning with whatever policy initiatives emerge. We sincerely hope the Commission plays a really solid, coordinating and standardising role bringing the various country-level initiatives together so there can be something for the common market. That's a big area we're watching."

Closer to home, Kibbey says ensuring members are all on the same page and helping them implement the SAC's tools into their supply chains is also key.

"We're going to see different levels of adoption of our current tools and different levels of adoption of the transparency work as well," he explains. "Doing anything at scale with your entire supply chain is hard.

"Some of our members rolled out the Higg Index recognising the scale of any sort of assessment tool takes work and to do it right takes investment. Some did it with very little resources, but it's still hard to roll [the Higg], or anything out to 1,000 or 2,000 facilities and entire multi-brands within a very large company."

The Higg launched into the North American and European outdoor industry markets in the summer of 2010 by the OIA Sustainability Working Group as the 'Eco Index', before being leveraged by the SAC in 2011. It has since carried out almost 14,000 assessments globally, and in June this year the two organisations cemented their partnership with plans to set specific Higg Index adoption targets for OIA members.

SAC and OIA eye broader adoption of Higg Index

Realistic view

But despite its potential, a question mark has been raised over whether the Higg Index can be realised speedily enough to counteract the damage caused by fast fashion. Kibbey concedes the Index is not the panacea for a totally sustainable supply chain, but suggests it can be a tool for greater collaboration.

"It's important to recognise that the Higg is a measurement tool and a set of invented goals for the industry. Both of those things, if you measure and have improvement and if you set clear signals for where the industry should go, can change the industry. 

"Does that mean the Higg Index is the magic bullet that suddenly solves all problems? No. The expectations I have for the Higg are that it's not going to solve everything, but it can get us all together on the same path. It's not a magic bullet, there is no magic bullet."

Indeed, collaboration is one element of a four-pronged target for the Higg Index, which also aims to tackle the issue of "audit fatigue," improve transparency, and allow brands to go deeper into their supply chains. And it is something regularly touted as a key amplifier for impact when it comes to sustainability and ethics. 

But while Kibbey believes collaboration is key, he also emphasises the need for individual will by a company to want to work towards improvement. 

"There has to be a real commitment to measurement and making these tools great, but really what matters is using them to show improvement. One part of that is enabled or improved by collaboration, but another part of that really comes down to the will of a brand or a manufacturer to improve itself and improve its upstream impacts. It has to decide to do that. No amount of collaboration is going to substitute for the will to improve, to make an impact."

Future expansion

Kibbey is keen to use the expertise of manufacturers to help drive future expansion and improvement of the Higg Index and for them to "be at the table" when it comes to shaping how it rolls out. It shouldn't, he says, be just about brands telling manufacturers what to do. 

Kibbey appears to be a mastermind at spinning plates as he details what sounds like an infinite list of projects for both the SAC and the Higg Index. One of these involves working with long-term partner and sustainable trade initiative IDH (Initiatief Duurzame Handel), a Dutch NGO, to see how the Higg Index can work nationally, particularly in countries like Vietnam.

"Vietnam is just exploding in terms of its apparel exports, so what are the five or six things the industry and stakeholders can do together to put it on this race to the top? One of them is standardised measurement and putting Higg at a national scale to see how we can work with the brands and retailers and the local government to do that."

Other plans include the roll-out of a public programme to enable SMEs to use the Higg without being members of the SAC. It is also carrying out work with the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) programme on a standardised audit using Higg as the basis. 

Sustainable Apparel Coalition opens Higg Index to SMEs

Despite the depth of innovation in the pipeline, Kibbey is keen to point out that it is about quality rather quantity if the Higg is to have real influence. 

"We want to rein it in a bit so that we can focus much more on making sure it works and it is scalable. We grew a lot this year and we learned quite a bit in terms of what we need to do in order to make it more efficient and more scalable as conditions allow. So essentially we're going to continue to develop each of the three modules…we'll try to draw lines around that and focus on making those scalable, workable and impactful."

As for the mid-term, Kibbey says the SAC is focused on solving large challenges rather than just measuring them. 

"In time there will just be a very large stream of data out there that gives a very deep picture about the social and environmental impacts of the supply chain. I would like us to be really seeing big movement on changing them and improving them."

He adds: "Our real focus right now is to prove our theory of change; that measurements and commitment to improve can lead to bigger changes. And that's hard. It's a big, hard industry to improve, and it keeps me up at night – but I'm optimistic when I see how committed so many people in it are to make that happen."