the sac blog

A Special Conversation: Transparency in the Fashion Industry

 

On Friday, May 28th, 2021, we hosted a live panel to talk about the topic “Transparency in Fashion”. The panel highlighted insights about the launch of our new transparency program alongside our technology partner Higg, as well as brand partners who have implemented the first phase of the program. 

 

Moderated by Emily Chan of Vogue Global Network, the panel featured:

  • Pascal Brun, Head of Sustainability at H&M 
  • Brad Boren, Director of Innovation & Sustainability at Norrona
  • Jason Kibbey, CEO at Higg
  • Amina Razvi, Executive Director at the SAC

 

To watch the replay of the panel, check out the video above, and read below for a quick recap. 

 

Emily Chan: Firstly, I’d like to ask Amina to share an introduction to the transparency program, and what this means for the fashion industry. 

Amina Razvi: It’s great to be here along with colleagues, to share this incredibly exciting milestone. Yesterday, in partnership with Higg and our members, we launched the first phase of our transparency program for publicly sharing data on a product’s environmental impact, starting with its materials content. We are really excited about this program because we believe it has the potential to revolutionize the way people shop, by giving consumers more insights into what they’re buying and the companies they’re buying from. 

The program provides a consistent and credible way for brands, retailers, and manufacturers to share standardized sustainability information about their products across a variety of impact categories such as fossil fuels, water use, and greenhouse gas emissions. The program has been built on a decade’s worth of tool development of the Higg Index, which measures social and environmental impacts, as well as years of consumer testing and insights. 

We are starting with material impacts because they are a significant contributor to the impact of a product. By focusing on material data first, the program can address one of the most pressing environmental challenges the industry faces, and empower consumers to vote with their wallets on issues that really matter to them. This is just the first phase of the program, and will expand to include manufacturing and corporate responsibility data over time. But it’s an important first step toward a unified approach for industry-wide transparency.

 

EC: Jason, I want to hand it over to you. What difference does this technology and data make for brands? 

Jason Kibbey: As Amina mentioned, it’s critical that this data be consistent, credible, and scalable. From smaller brands like Norrona to giant companies like H&M, there’s only one way to do all of these three things together: by putting it on a digital platform. 

We put this on Higg so that we can actually draw from what we have as the largest pool of data about sustainability in the industry, first about materials, and then in the future, about factories and brand performance. We bring this together so that we can create these product sustainability profiles. It’s something you can only do digitally, and with large sets of data. 

What I’m really excited about is that by having this digital, we are actually going to be able to innovate. We can use these insights to really understand how we can shape this data and information so that it is impactful, and can shape consumer behavior. 

 

EC: How much demand is there for this kind of information from consumers? 

Pascal Brun: The demand is huge. They want to know where their product is made, how, and under which conditions. Transparency is key. It’s key for building trust with our customers, but it’s also key for building accountability for the brands, which is crucial to be able to transform the industry. 

When it comes to the Higg Index, [and showing the Sustainability Profiles on] our products for the first time, this enables our consumers to make meaningful decisions and informed choices. To be able to do that, the information needs to be clear, easy to understand, and credible. To make it credible, it has to be third party verified. It also has to be built by industry experts. 

Lastly, it has to evolve over time. Standards have to evolve to the latest information available, and to match consumer needs and demands. This is what the SAC has been working on for the last 10 years. 

 

EC: What sort of value does this program bring for a smaller brand? 

Brad Boren: The greatest impact is for the consumer. Regardless of company size, being able to go from assumptions to facts, is huge. It also provides more security: when we say we are providing recycled material or organic cotton, consumers can understand the whole value chain is being followed.

It’s also a good place for us to tell the story behind our supply chain, how much work it actually takes to go with preferred fibers. I think it’s important for us to be as transparent as possible. We wanted to be a part of this so that it can scale down, as well as up. So that it’s not complicated for small companies. Data is important — a single source of truth that we can all look at. And making sure it’s automated, because small companies need to have more efficiency.  

 

EC: I want to dig in a little deeper, in how this looks like for consumers. Can you explain the layers of this program? 

AR: The sustainability profile lives on a brand’s online store. So when you go to a brand’s website, it serves as a scorecard, sort of like a nutrition label. So you’ll see right there on the product page the environmental impacts of that product — whether its greenhouse gas emissions or water use. 

The seal is a little different. It’s more of an at-a-glance view for a consumer to be able to filter products and understand if that product has a lower environmental impact, like a certified organic label you’ll see at a store.

Both have the same underlying methodology, but they provide different ways for a brand to be able to express information on their website. 

PB: It’s an interesting customer journey. You click on the product, and you get the first layer of information: the performance of the material. The second layer will give you the impact of the material, and the third layer goes to the Higg profiles webpage, where you get all the detailed information on how the score was calculated. The full journey is clear, easy, and trustworthy. 

BB: This is only the first step. The products show information, which wasn’t verified before — you can say something was organic cotton, but this program will show it’s actual impacts. Eventually, we’ll have scores that reflect our responsibility as a brand, as well as facility scores [sustainability performance of manufacturers] — all of those will connect, and those who are interested can go as far and deep as they want. That’s the most exciting part. 

 

EC: The seal certifies that products have at least 12.5% improvement within four criteria [in comparison to their conventional alternative], is that correct? 

JK: One important differentiation is that it’s within one category. It’s not about comparing wool to cotton. It’s about making comparisons within the same fiber type, for example, conventional cotton vs. organic cotton. 

 

EC: You mention this is an important milestone, but you want to take this further. In terms of expanding beyond materials, what are the next steps for that? 

AR: The Higg Index was always designed to assess social and environmental performance. The suite of tools measure how products are designed, where and how they are manufactured, and brand performance. Ultimately we believe that consumers should have that holistic understanding. Over the next 12-18 months, we are looking at how to layer in other information, so this will continue to expand and evolve over time. But we believe this is an important first step. 

JK: We want to provide simplicity combined with very rich data. The ability to go deep and share deep information, allows us to look at things that may not yet be available in the Higg Index. We see these profiles as a place where consumers can get information about what they’re buying, and we are excited to release the other data we’ve been collecting over these last years, such as facility information [from manufacturers] and social [and labor] information. 

 

EC: How crucial is it to have a standardized system like this, offering not only transparency, but accountability from brands, that can be applied to the whole industry? 

AR: One of the ways I describe this, especially when I talk to my kids, is that it’s almost like a nutrition label. Can you imagine going to the store and finding 18 different nutritional labels? As a consumer, you wouldn’t have a good understanding of how to make decisions in that way. So having a standard is critically important, and is the reason why the SAC began this work in the first place. So that there was a standard in assessing social and environmental performance across the value chain, and that companies can not only assess their own performance, but also communicate it in the marketplace, to be able to drive decision making both from a business-to-business perspective and business to consumer. 

BB: One key thing is that this uses standards within the industry that are recognized. Whether it’s Textile Exchange, or GOT, it uses standards that are known. This chain of custody is also important: to be able to take it from the farmer, through the development of the materials, all the way to the brands. So I think this is powerful, so that people can be secure that they are getting what they think they are buying. 

PB: Having a unified standard for the industry has been the primary reason why we joined SAC from the very beginning. This is key. To enable comparability is what you need to benchmark. From the manufacturing side, it helps to reduce audit fatigue, which is the biggest bottleneck in sustainability performance. Can you imagine being a supplier, and having 10 buyers with 10 different standards, and 10 different audit protocols? This will not lead the industry forward. Having one standard is what we need. 

BB: Transparency leads to improvement. We learn from ourselves and each other; we learn from our mistakes, and we can share them, move forward, and improve. If we are focused in the same direction, it is much easier for the manufacturers and consumers to understand. 

 

This is only the beginning of a new chapter of transparency,  accountability, and transformation for the industry. As our program continues to evolve, we invite you to follow us here on our website or on social media [@apprlcolation] to see the latest updates. To learn more about the transparency program, see more here