Behind the scenes at the Sustainable Apparel Coalition

A key reason why the companies agreed to work on common metrics around environmental issues was that, when it came to labor and workplace issues, they had already learned how wasteful and messy it is to go it alone. Virtually all of the big apparel companies—to the dismay of their suppliers—have their own code of conduct, inspectors and reporting system. This means that a single supplier with many customers can be inspected and audited numerous times. The retailers and brands didn’t want to duplicate efforts all over again when it came to setting environmental standards

From the start, the group was guided by several principles:

  • Build on the best of existing work: Instead of starting with a blank page, the new coalition began by adapting an “Eco-Index” that had been developed over several years by the Outdoor Industry Association, whose members include Patagonia, REI and Timberland. [See my 2010 blogpost, How green are those hiking boots?] Similarly, they relied on the data from Nike, which proved invaluable.
  • Don’t let perfect get in the way of good enough: The group decided make progress through rapid prototyping: push forward, test ideas, revamp them, test them again, but don’t lose momentum. The index being released today is described as a work in progress; it doesn’t include metrics around social and workplace issues, for example, but those are coming.
  • Discuss, then decide. Don’t await agreement on every detail: The meetings were run, generally, by BluSkye’s Whalen who after an issue had been aired would ask everyone present if they had “principled or paramount objections.” The goal was to avoid quibbles. Consensus usually came, but on one occasion, a Nike executive objected to workplace and labor metrics because, the company felt, they weren’t rigorous enough.

“That was one of the few times, maybe the only time, when someone raised an objection,” Ridgeway remembered. But, by then, people in the group had come to respect Nike. Said Ridgeway: “To me, Nike is the sustainability leader in apparel and footwear, among all of us. There’s nobody in the group that has contributed more to our collective efforts.”

Over a period of many months, working groups developed the index which has hundreds of data points. It needed a name. Higg came from the search for the Higgs-Boson particle. The index reflected “our search for the particles of sustainability,” Kibbey said.

The Start of Something Big?

Now that the index is out, will it matter? All the companies have promised to use it, but some will obviously deploy it more widely than others and, for now — despite a commitment to transparency — the companies that use the index are asked to agree not to publish or promote their scores. That’s because the index is complicated, and data will be need to be checked and validated before scores are released.

“We need to make sure that whatever we are communicating is totally reliable,” Kibbey says. “It’s only going to work if it’s as reliable as the calorie numbers on the back of candy bar.”

I asked him by email when consumers could expect to see scores on clothing labels. He replied:

We’re currently using the Higg Index to do self-assessments for a company’s internal use. We’ll be taking results from those assessments to refine the Index itself and improve the quality of the data it collects. We will then look at data validation and eventually verification of the Index outputs. Once the data becomes reliable and extremely credible we’ll look at communicating the Index ratings to stakeholders and consumers. We’re at least a couple of years if not longer from reaching that point and we’ll only move ahead with releasing Index results when we can assure they are credible.

Next page: Will it move the needle?