Sustainable Apparel Coalition

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Scalable Solutions to Combat the Climate Crisis

April 22, 2021

As seen on LinkedIn

Today is Earth Day and the climate crisis continues to loom as one of the world’s most pressing challenges, touching every aspect of our global society. The next ten years will be pivotal in our efforts to curtail the worst impacts of catastrophic climate change, as scientists agree that we need to aggressively cut greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 45% by 2030 to reach the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, in line with the Science Based Targets Initiative

Tackling the climate crisis can seem daunting, but the good news is that solutions exist today that can make a tangible difference in our efforts to protect people and the planet from the worst impacts. While innovation and evolution in climate solutions must continue, stakeholders across the apparel industry have spent years developing and piloting tools and resources that we can implement today to help reduce GHG and air pollution emissions, conserve fresh water resources, and eliminate hazardous chemicals throughout the global value chain. 

Here are five steps the industry can and should take right now towards tackling the climate crisis: 

1. Implement annual measurement to determine the industry’s climate impacts 

When it comes to tackling climate impacts, the industry can’t assess our progress without understanding where we are at and measuring how we’re performing. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) has partnered with industry partners, including the Apparel Impact Institute, the World Resources Institute, Higg and Textile Exchange, to develop and define a robust methodology to measure the climate impacts of the apparel industry annually using the Higg Index. This first baseline was calculated using 2019 fiber volume data and life cycle impact assessment data from the Higg Materials Sustainable Index (MSI) and Product Module (PM), and we will continue to refine and improve the methodology and assumptions to enable better measurement of the industry’s climate impacts. 

2. Leverage the Higg Index suite of tools to measure and reduce the environmental footprint of products 

Today, two Higg Product Tools — the Higg Materials Sustainability Index (Higg MSI) and the Higg Product Module (Higg PM) — are empowering designers, brands, retailers, and manufacturers to use life cycle assessment data to make informed decisions in creating products with lower environmental impacts. 

  • The Higg MSI helps product creation teams select materials with lower environmental impact as compared to their conventional counterparts, supported by science-backed data. The MSI measures five environmental impacts, including global warming potential and fossil fuel depletion. 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 products with lower environmental impacts. For example, SAC member Gore has used the MSI to evaluate and communicate the impact of more than 85% of its upcoming seasonal collection.
  • The Higg PM is the newest addition to the Higg suite of tools, launched in 2020. It measures and compares the environmental footprint over a product’s lifecycle, from the point of resource extraction to finished product assembly — cradle to factory gate, including materials production. The second edition of the tool, launching this year, will complete the lifecycle from cradle to grave, expanding measurement to distribution, product use, and end of use, making it easier for companies to understand the full environmental impact of the products they create.

3. Decarbonize global manufacturing and business operations

SAC members and other Higg Index users are leveraging the tools to accelerate their decarbonization efforts at the corporate and manufacturing levels. 

  • The Higg Brand and Retail Module (BRM) helps brands and retailers understand and lower their environmental impacts and identify ways to establish and maintain practices that promote the well-being of workers, support local communities, and champion women in the workforce. The Higg BRM assesses 11 environmental impacts and 16 social and labor impacts, such as biodiversity, deforestation, corporate GHG, air pollution emissions, forced labor, health and safety, freedom of association and collective bargaining. In addition, given the breadth and depth of the Higg BRM, brands and retailers can also use the data collected to report progress on other industry initiatives like Science Based Targets, the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and the G7 Fashion Pact, streamlining the data collection and reporting process.

To meet the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement, however, the greatest opportunity for emissions reductions are deep within the value chain, such as at supplier facilities (Scope 3). 

  • The Higg Facility Environmental Module (FEM) provides a single, comprehensive assessment for global facilities at each tier of production to measure environmental performance and is used today by more than 19,000 facilities in 100 countries around the world. The FEM can help facilities identify and prioritize opportunities for performance improvements, such as energy or water usage. In our most recent data from 2019, more than 70% of facilities using the FEM set baselines for energy use and 50% of facilities are working on implementation plans to cut their carbon footprint through energy efficiency upgrades and other emissions reductions. Identification of these opportunities not only reduces emissions but it also helps facilities save money. For example, over the past three years, suppliers for Ann Inc. implemented 250 energy savings programs that have saved them over $3.5 million in energy costs.

4. Advocate for policy and regulatory changes that will encourage innovation in circularity

Policy makers have a critical role to play. Diverging policy frameworks only create confusion for consumers, fragmentation of efforts by the industry and increased resource burdens for everyone. It is essential that while we as organizations are working to drive greater alignment and synergy, policy makers are also working to create harmonization as widely as possible. And to do this effectively requires engagement with all key industry stakeholders, from brands and retailers, to civil society and consumers. It is a core reason why the SAC created the Policy Hub in Europe with our partners, the Global Fashion Agenda and the Federation of the European Sporting goods Industry. 

Collaborating with policymakers and stakeholders are important levers to facilitate and spur industry change. In support of circular policies, the SAC, our partners at Policy Hub, members and non-members are working to develop a Global Apparel and Footwear PEFCR (Product Environment Footprint Category Rules), which will serve as a policy standard for products in the EU. 

5. Invest in innovative materials and processes in partnership with others

To help drive even greater reductions in the environmental footprint of the global apparel sector, the SAC updates the Higg MSI twice a year to reflect new and updated LCA data, new materials, and new manufacturing processes from suppliers in the footwear, apparel and textile industries. For the past several years, we have extended an open invitation to the industry to provide the best current data out there, because we see an urgent need for both increased quantity and quality of LCA data to drive impact at scale. 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. For example, the most recent version of the MSI was released in December 2020 and includes the addition of 15 new processes that were submitted through the MSI Contributor in 2020, contributing to the existing millions of materials options companies can review and access in the MSI.

To learn more about these important issues, check out the recording from our recent webinar on scaling the use of materials with a lower environmental impact. 

The clock is ticking on climate change. Stakeholders from across the industry must continue to work together to deploy and scale existing solutions as well as develop innovations to achieve a healthier future for people and the planet. The time to act is now. 

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