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Sustainable Apparel Coalition

the sac blog

A New Era of Transparency in Fashion

Going grocery shopping, I find it helpful to see and compare which products are healthiest for my family. But can you imagine going into a store and having to review eighteen different kinds of nutrition labels? It would be impossible to make an informed decision about what I was buying and why. Having one label makes it easier to assess our choices based on a common standard we can trust. And that was the objective of the nutrition label — to help consumers make better and healthier decisions about the food they buy.

But what about the clothes we wear?

Increasingly, consumers are demanding more information about how, where, and under what conditions their clothes were made and the impact these products have on people and the planet. But without a common standard and mechanism for sharing this information with consumers, it gets very confusing. It also makes it harder for consumers to know what is greenwashing and what isn’t. Moreover, government regulations (such as in the EU) are looking to regulate the verification of sustainability claims, which means brands have to come up with credible, consistent and robust ways to communicate their social and environmental performance. Not to mention, brands are also under increased pressure from NGOs, investors, stakeholders, and consumers to disclose information, or otherwise face reputational and financial risk. 

We’ve finally entered an era where transparency is in fashion. 

That’s why I’m excited to share that the SAC, in partnership with its technology partner Higg, launched the first phase of our transparency program today. The Higg Index transparency program provides a unified way for brands, retailers, and manufacturers to share sustainability performance information on apparel and footwear, across four impact categories such as water use, water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and use of fossil fuels. After ten years of developing the methodology for the most robust end-to-end sustainability measurement framework in the industry, the Higg Index, we are ready to scale these tools and towards transforming the industry. Because while measuring and reporting is important to understand your baseline and show achievements, transparency is critical for holding the fashion industry accountable to actual progress on reducing our impact and increasing social justice. 

Though it is only phase one of this program, it is a major milestone for our organization and the industry. This is the first step toward a consistent approach for transparency across the industry that will help consumers better understand the impacts of the products they buy, help businesses differentiate their products in the marketplace, and help spur innovation towards more sustainable products in the future. This first phase of the program will disclose data on a product’s environmental impact based on its materials, but in the future, it will expand to include data on manufacturing and corporate responsibility. Based on current projections, our best estimation is that the holistic program will be available by early 2023. This is extremely complex work and will take time to build, but we’re committed to doing it right and partnering with others — in a way that best serves consumers and allows them to make more informed decisions about the products they buy and the companies they buy from. 

Amazon, H&M, and Norrona are among the first brands to participate, implementing the program across a selection of their products. There are two components to this first phase of the program, both of which help consumers get information about a product’s environmental impact:

  1. The Higg Index Sustainability Profile, which lives on a brand’s online store. It acts as a scorecard, revealing information about the product’s environmental impact based on its materials content. 
  2. The Higg Index Materials seal, which serves as an at-a-glance way to find products made with lower environmental impact materials. Like the nutrition label example, think of this as similar to a seal you might see for certified organic produce or certified fair trade coffee beans. 

While this is a great start, if we want to increase  the impact of this work, we need to scale its adoption across the industry, helping to reduce disparate, inconsistent, and duplicative assessments and ratings in the marketplace. Over the past ten years, the SAC has pioneered the most robust sustainability measurement tools through the Higg Index, with the support, collaboration, and partnership of a large majority of the fashion industry. We’ve been able to develop and execute on a transparency program that is backed by credible data and designed for impact in partnership with our members and other partners across the industry. We believe that through continued engagement and evolution, we have an opportunity to get the entire industry behind a solution that consumers can trust. But we can’t do it alone — we need everyone in the fashion industry to come together around a unified solution for it to work.

For the skeptics out there, you might wonder how this program addresses greenwashing. First, it’s important to share that this program enables performance claims, not disclosures. Why does that matter? Because while disclosures mention that a product uses “certified organic cotton”, a performance claim is the actual impact of the material. Furthermore, the transparency program is built upon the Higg Index, which uses the best-available, standardized data from our Higg MSI tool, which means that it is backed by reliable data and third-party verification. You can also learn more about how the program addresses greenwashing via our FAQ’s here

While transparency may not equal sustainability, it does put pressure on brands to strive for constant improvement and gives consumers the information they are looking for. By publicly disclosing information on the materials in a product and how it is made, it levels the playing field and can create healthy competition, pushing companies to improve performance, incentivizing innovation throughout the industry, and realizing positive change for the world. At the SAC, we believe transparency is essential to driving systemic change, which is why it is one of our four focus areas in our new strategic plan. By 2025, we aim to have 100% of our members participate in public-facing ratings for sustainability performance, and this marks the beginning of our journey towards that big, bold goal. 

A new era of transparency is here, and we at the SAC are committed to working across the industry to unify how we credibly measure and communicate sustainability performance. An enormous amount of effort has gone into getting us this far, and we are genuinely honored to work alongside such dedicated partners and colleagues to move this work forward. 

On a personal note, this is a career-defining moment — one of those rare milestones I’ll be able to reflect back on, along with my colleagues, and remember how we were part of a solution that helped to transform the fashion industry. This is the beginning of something revolutionary, and only by working together, across the industry, can we seize the opportunity.  

Come along with us on our journey, and learn more about the transparency program here.

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