Sustainable Apparel Coalition

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The Purpose and Power of the Higg MSI

March 12, 2021

As seen on LinkedIn

The Higg Index, a suite of tools for the standardized measurement of value chain sustainability, was developed collaboratively by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), in partnership with sustainability experts and global industry stakeholders over the past decade to accelerate the industry’s journey towards a more sustainable future. Today, more than 250 global members of the SAC use the Higg Index to proactively measure and manage issues like environmental stewardship, social responsibility, and supplier relations, informing the decisions our industry needs to make to survive and thrive in a post-pandemic world. As the SAC enters its second decade of action, the Higg Index will be central to our mission to transform businesses for exponential impact — providing the building blocks necessary to help businesses and consumers make more informed decisions about the products they make and buy, reducing quantifiable impact on people and the planet.

The Higg Index currently comprises five core tools, which collectively provide a holistic measurement framework for social and environmental impacts throughout the value chain. One of the most evolved tools is the Higg Materials Sustainability Index (MSI), which helps product creation teams select materials with lower environmental impact, supported by science-backed data. The tool has undergone more than a decade of data gathering and industry development since its origin as an in-house measurement tool for Nike, and now represents a cornerstone of the Higg Index today given materials are the foundation of all products. 

The Power of the Higg MSI
Before the SAC adopted and expanded the Higg MSI, there was no standardized methodology to help the industry make more informed decisions about the environmental impacts of materials — in fact, there was very little information at all on this topic. Life cycle assessment (LCA) reports were available for some materials and products but were costly and time intensive to create. Each report could use different impact categories and assumptions, making it hard to understand which materials and processes had the most potential to lower environmental impacts. As with each of the Higg Index tools, the MSI was created to help shift the industry at scale and designed to evolve as new data became available. At each step of its evolution, the MSI has been the most comprehensive tool on the market for evaluating the environmental impacts of materials and allowing designers to make more informed decisions through the product design process. 

As all product-focused people in our industry know, there are many phases in the life cycle of creating a product. The MSI specifically and intentionally covers the material development and manufacturing phase — also known as “cradle to gate” — as this is where the majority of environmental impact occurs and where the most data currently exists, despite our collective desire for more data to support circularity goals. 

The Higg MSI is the most advanced tool available for apples-to-apples comparison within similar materials categories. This means that the MSI can and should be used to compare materials to their same material alternatives, such as comparing conventional cotton to organic cotton, or conventional polyester to recycled polyester. It is not intended to compare different materials to each other, such as trying to compare cotton to polyester, and it is not a comprehensive roster of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ materials. For example, it’s unlikely that a designer would create a swimsuit made of wool or yoga pants out of leather. Rather, it’s meant to help designers and product developers improve product sustainability within the context of the functional considerations of their design. 

The second edition of the Higg Product Module (PM), coming soon, begins to address additional aspects of a product, looking at the specific brand and retail context, including how a product is used. The full life cycle impacts of a material are dependent on the final product the material it is used in. For example, a single material garment might be easier to recycle given its simpler content makeup than one that is complex and made of multiple materials, regardless of the recyclability of each individual material. Depending on the final design, a product made with the same materials can have very different end of life implications. 

Digging into the Data
The Higg MSI scores materials based on five impact areas: global warming potential, nutrient pollution in water (eutrophication), water scarcity, fossil fuel depletion, and chemistry. Hundreds of apparel, footwear, and textile industry designers and product developers today use the MSI to assess and compare the impacts of different materials within similar material categories so they can make better decisions as they look to design and develop more sustainable products. Collection of the environmental impact data powering the MSI is an open and transparent process, done through both data submissions from the industry and from credible life cycle assessment (LCA) databases. All background LCA data in the MSI comes from reputable industry databases, with the majority of the data coming from the GaBi database by Sphera. All data that is submitted by the industry is reviewed and verified by an independent consultant before being scored and entered into the MSI. 

We sometimes get asked about the scope of the MSI, why it may or may not encompass certain data sets, or about the age of a particular set of data. These are valid questions, and we, like many other stakeholders committed to a more sustainable fashion industry, see the urgent need for both quantity and increased quality of industry data. For the past several years, we have extended an open invitation to the industry to provide the best current data out there, and we will continue to update the data moving forward. We are actively in conversations with key stakeholders about the best paths to obtain that information, and we continue to expand the MSI to incorporate the latest scientifically-qualified data available. To this industry’s credit, we haven’t kept waiting for perfect or better data before taking action in the way other industries like the tobacco and oil and gas industries — because we all recognize the urgency and the scale of the challenges we collectively face.  

Partnering for Progress
Most of the feedback we’ve received to date has been meaningful and productive and we continue to welcome this type of dialogue. A great example of where we’ve acted on feedback is the decision to accelerate the removal of the Higg MSI single score function earlier this year. Constructive feedback helps the industry ensure continuous improvement of standardized tools like the MSI, increasing the value and insight for those who use them. All five tools within the Higg Index have been designed to continuously evolve, and they will continue to do so as data, feedback, demands, and science evolve.

Because the Higg MSI is fiber-agnostic we’re also collaborating with industry groups across the natural and synthetic fibers spectrum to strengthen MSI data. In conversations with representatives from the leather industry, we’ve been discussing opportunities to collect and utilize more primary industry data in the MSI leather data sets. This will help create more representative data sets and broaden the customization options available to users. We’ve also been engaging with representatives from the alpaca industry who are working on a more detailed industry LCA study on alpaca fiber. 

In both of these cases, it is the industry associations that have the deepest knowledge and access to primary information about their respective material types, and while we recognize how complex and costly it is to get good data at an industry level, the demand for transparency is only getting stronger, and we encourage all industries to invest in robust data collection and scientific review to inform design practices, purchasing behavior, and ultimately progress towards climate and ethical business goals. When we’re talking about global material volumes, it’s real, tested data that we all need to shift brand, retailer, and consumer purchasing decisions in the right direction, and fast.

We are proud of the progress our industry has made within the last decade but know there is still a lot more work to do. In large part, we credit environmental organizations, stakeholders, and sophisticated, values-driven consumers who have insisted on companies stepping up to address the sustainability challenges within our industry, calling for real and demonstrated progress. We also celebrate the many leading companies who are driving this work internally and developing innovative products that elevate natural fibers, recyclability, and new raw materials engineered with sustainability and circularity in mind — they inspire all of us to continue a path of improvement.    

As a global multi-stakeholder nonprofit organization, composed of brands, manufacturers, academics, and NGOs all sharing the common belief in environmental protection and social justice, we are honored to play a role in this transformation. Helping all organizations across the industry build and adopt a holistic system for performance assessment, decision-making and collective action — regardless of where they are on the path to sustainability — is what the SAC is here to do. 

As we move forward from celebrating our first decade to beginning our second, we are readying ourselves and our tools for the next step in industry sustainability. We’ve already begun to pivot from the challenging work of creating standardized measurement tools, to expanding their use and leveraging the performance insights they generate. Understanding the integrity and intent of the tools that we rely upon is essential as we ready for the road ahead and bring all the stakeholders in the value chain — from the cotton field to the consumer — along with us.   

We have so much to do and no time to waste.

Sustainable Apparel Coalition / 344 Thomas L Berkley Way #K7 / Oakland, CA 94612