The Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Facility Environmental Module (Higg FEM) has provided a solid foundation for apparel factory measurement, but needs to further advance consumer-facing transparency, researchers have said.
A four-year study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, has found that without real action from apparel brands around transparency and incentives, the potential for the fashion industry’s sustainability tools to transform the industry is limited.
The study focused on the Higg FEM, part of the Higg Index suite of tools, developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) and now delivered by technology spin-off, Higg Co. The tool is widely regarded as the most technologically advanced information-based strategy in the apparel sector. The annual Higg FEM measures an apparel facility’s environmental management capabilities, procedures and plans and the self-assessment is carried out by thousands of factories every year.
UC Berkeley’s professor of environmental and labour policy, Dara O’Rourke, and PhD candidate Niklas Lollo set out to learn whether the Higg FEM is creating meaningful change within garment-making facilities. The SAC granted full access to its data set and the findings are based on three years of FEM data, a survey of top-performing facilities, and case studies of eight facilities in Bangladesh and China.
The research concluded that while the Higg Index has laid an important foundation for factory measurement, its effectiveness in driving real action has been limited by slow progress on transparency and a lack of incentives between buyers and factories.
As the Higg FEM assessment scores are shared privately between suppliers and buyers only, O’Rourke and Lollo recommend greater public transparency of the data as a means to incentivise genuine transformation at buyer and supplier level.
The SAC and Higg Co announced recently that verified assessments from manufacturers may be shared publicly by the end of 2020.
O’Rourke, who has been studying global supply chains for 20 years, said: “The SAC has become the largest effort across industry to establish standards and improve conditions. It counts 40% of the apparel industry as members and we thought it was critical that someone independently look at this initiative to understand if it’s having an impact.”
“Despite years of effort, we see continued problems and slow progress in the global apparel industry. We believe the Higg FEM has created a solid foundation, but it can and should move further to advance consumer-facing transparency. Providing information that is material and meaningful to consumers, investors, and NGOs will unlock incentives for the best brands and factories.
“With greater disclosure of Higg scores, top-performing producers would benefit from recognition in the market, resulting in more orders and better buyer relationships. It is time for apparel brands to move from just grading factories, to truly incentivising them to improve conditions for workers and the environment. This opportunity is something that leading brands and retailers should be taking on as consumer expectations continue to rise.”
The SAC released Higg FEM v3.0 while the study was underway, and while it has made a number of improvements, O’Rourke and Lollo said it does not yet solve the fundamental issues of data transparency and incentives. The researchers did note that the most innovative Higg FEM practices involve direct brand support and creating stronger connections between existing facility and brand measurement tools within the Higg Index could be an important mechanism for change.
Amina Razvi, executive director of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, said of the study results: “When the SAC spun out Higg Co last year as a standalone technology company, it did so to accelerate development and delivery of the Higg Index tools and move faster towards performance improvement and transparency. In this complex work, our first step is collecting consistent and comparable data. We agree that there is more work to be done to link facility performance measurement and incentives across the value chain, and with the completion of the Higg suite of tools this year, the industry is now positioned to scale and accelerate transformation.”