Leveraging the Higg Index for Greater Supply Chain Sustainability

Earlier this year, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) unveiled a transparency roadmap, with a new model that adds visibility by allowing brands and their suppliers to share sustainability performance data with their peers and the public. It's a move that will enhance the industry's ability to better understand environmental hotspots and make meaningful improvements. It helps businesses learn from industry partners and competitors, and offers a way for brands and suppliers to further effect change within their organizations and along their supply chains.

The shift is part of the SAC's growing efforts to make environmentally conscious business practices accessible to all members of the apparel, footwear and home textiles industries. Since 2012, the organization has empowered members with the Higg Index, its flagship suite of self-assessment tools that measure environmental and social impacts and identify areas for improvement. The process delivers a holistic overview of the sustainability performance of a unique product or company.

The Higg Index tools consist of several modules that enable companies to assess and identify areas for improvement. Topics covered in the tools include policies and practices, products, materials, packaging and manufacturing. Companies can use the tools internally to assess their own practices and to assess their suppliers' practices. Along the value chain there are examples of many apparel and footwear companies requiring their suppliers to use the Higg Index to measure their own practices and identify areas of improvement. Still others are using the Higg Index to decide which companies to partner with.

What makes the Higg Index tools stand out is that unlike many environmental and social assessments, it was designed to be a shared tool, with a common language that can be used across brands and manufacturers. It recognizes that the systemic sustainability challenges the industry faces are bigger than any individual players can address on their own; indeed, change requires broad shifts in culture and practices in an industry. For that reason, it works to eliminate many of the traditional barriers to sustainability efforts.

One of those barriers is that companies often have limited resources and few, if any, dedicated staff focused on sustainability issues, making it difficult to identify and make significant improvements. The Higg Index helps companies overcome these challenges by providing the Higg Index tools at a low or no cost.

In addition, many larger brands have developed and rolled out their own sustainability assessment tools for the factories in their supply chain. While these individual efforts have resulted in some positive changes and improvements, too often factories become overwhelmed by the time and resources required to fill out the various assessments for each brand that sources from them. The factories end up spending a significant amount of time and resources filling out the assessments from each of the brands. This leaves factories little time or resources to implement improvements. The Higg Index provides the opportunity for brands to use a single tool for the suppliers. The result is that factories can fill out one assessment for all their customers and spend more time making improvements.

Among the organizations already using the Higg Index internally and with their suppliers is Columbia Sportswear. Columbia used the index to make improvements in its overall practices and as a framework to develop a PFC-free rain jacket made largely of recycled materials. Burton Snowboards asks suppliers for their Higg Index scores. The company uses the Higg Index Facilities Module to measure and reduce impacts in the supply chain. At the supplier level, Micro-Pak, which manufactures anti-microbial sheets and stickers used in packaging across the apparel industry, is using the index to take practical steps to reduce the environmental impact of its manufacturing.

Brands and suppliers throughout the industry have a powerful tool in the Higg Index to focus on continuous improvement. By using its modules internally and along their supply chains, forward-thinking organizations can make strides toward reducing the environmental impact of their operations and products. With more than 170 organizations, representing about 40 percent of the worldwide apparel value chain, SAC's members can be a powerful force for good. And with each new adopter, additional links in the apparel industry are connected. Revolution is not easy, but together we can make a real impact.

Sal Cesario is the global sales and marketing director for Micro-Pak, which offers the apparel industry's most comprehensive solution for mold prevention.