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The Higg Index, some bad press, and the potential of blockchain technology

supply chain graphic

Image via Shutterstock/Golden Sikorka

The global apparel supply chain is one of the most complex of any industry. It's been reported that one T-shirt can travel thousands of miles before a customer purchases it, expertly shown in this KQED presentation. But these numerous international stops along the supply chain lead to a holistically unsustainable and globally spanning industry. Everything from environmental inefficiencies to human labor abuses can plague the supply chain for that one T-shirt.

This is where the Higg Index comes into play.

Created by the Walmart- and Patagonia-sponsored Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) in 2012, Higg (the official name of the business) became an independent software company in 2019. It collects and quantifies data regarding textile manufacturing and supply chains from any apparel company willing to share, compiling the information in one place (the Higg Index) with the intent of creating a global standard for effective and efficient textile production. A standard based on certifiable information that clearly addresses resource use, labor equity and environmental impact is desperately needed in the unregulated and unpredictable apparel industry. 

But in the past few months, the Higg Index has come under scrutiny for its lackadaisical approach to environmental impacts of synthetic fiber production and the unimpeded misrepresentation of its data by brands. It’s even been criticized for "trivializing the amount of change that the fashion industry needs to take to become sustainable."

The Higg Index is an example of a well-intentioned concept struggling to stick the landing. Its critics fault the index for not fully addressing the systemic change that nearly everyone agrees is needed throughout every stage of the apparel industry. And yet, for better or for worse, Higg remains the best catalyst of this transformation. Increased visibility of the needlessly wasteful global fashion supply chain is the first step. The only question is, how to proceed?

The answer, like everything else within the sustainability sector, is: "It’s complicated."

The most obvious response is to make the environmental and societal impacts of each stage of the supply chain visible (exactly what Higg set out to do) to all stakeholders, thus enabling the market to reward those who meet its standards and punish those who don’t. Customers would stop purchasing products that come from companies with problematic supply chains, subpar companies would change or die, and the fashion industry would become more sustainable. 

Everything from environmental inefficiencies to human labor abuses can plague the supply chain for that one T-shirt.

At least, that’s the theory of change. Manifesting that utopian future requires digging into those supply chains and emerging with accurate data — a task proven to be easier said than done.

This is where blockchain enters the chat.

To ensure that comfy T-shirt arrives on time and ready to go, a growing number of apparel companies are employing the use of blockchain technology. Best described as a decentralized ledger that provides visibility of the product at every stop of its journey, blockchain serves as a remote and secure log of any sort of information. For example, such visibility can let a distributor know if there is a holdup or other problem in the supply chain. The distributor can then adjust accordingly, reducing customer fallout and negative economic impact.

But what if your supply chain is made up of thousands of small designers, cutters, sewers, dyers, finishers and other businesses? The complexity can grow manifold, although there are solutions. 

Walmart, for example, uses blockchain to track its leafy green and bell pepper supply chains, which includes thousands of small farmers around the world. Tejas Bhatt, senior director of Walmart’s global food safety innovation team, explained to me the advantage of the immutable nature of blockchain data: "Suppliers are a lot more careful about the accuracy of the data they put onto the blockchain because it cannot be retroactively updated." Bhatt said that Walmart aimed to reduce human error by "verifying that the digital footprint that [Walmart] sees on the blockchain actually matches the physical footprint of the product as its flowing through the supply chain," by employing automation.

Walmart has even created a solution for suppliers that lack the financial and human capital to integrate blockchain. Bhatt and his team worked with each supplier at the capacity specific to their operational capability. Smaller suppliers, for example, can use Excel spreadsheets as opposed to a more expensive counterpart unnecessary for that supplier’s size. Rather than attempt to integrate a complicated process into a company that can’t support the technology, Walmart works to create a scaled, digitized data set that could easily upload into the chain without exceeding economic limitations. 

And although this example is specifically rooted in produce, Bhatt is optimistic that "while the Walmart model specifically" may not translate to fashion, blockchain in general can most definitely make the jump from one industry to another.

But Higg isn’t one company focused on one product’s supply chain. Instead, Higg endeavors to catalog all environmental and societal inputs along every step of the entire global fashion industry’s thousands of supply chains and then simplify that data into clear industry benchmarks. 

Blockchain can help simplify this process.

And it’s a move the company seems to be considering. James Schaffer, chief strategy officer at Higg, told me, "[Higg] has a number of fronts of technological innovation underway, some of which pertain to this new generation of digital traceability companies." While he would not go into any further detail, he agreed with the critics’ call for "much better governance and quality assurance on every single piece of data in and out of the system."

The aforementioned critiques leveled at Higg are legitimate and deserve thoughtful and deliberate action and responses. No company should be able to wield Higg’s data out of context without serious repercussions from the data’s origin company, and the environmental impact of synthetic fibers (such as those used to create vegan leather) should be scrutinized and clearly labeled as reliant upon the petroleum industry. Condemning Higg, however, for these fumbles instead of helping it to move forward doesn’t further the ultimate goal of a sustainable global fashion industry. 

Only Higg itself can determine how it intends to proceed. Currently, SAC and Higg have paused the consumer-facing transparency program globally to address the criticisms and redesign the process so clearly in need of an update. Schaffer commented during our conversation: "I think our [Higg’s employees and staff] hearts are really in the right place, but we’re working on something that’s super hard. … And we just want to have that honest back-and-forth so that we can genuinely improve." And, regardless of whether you’re a Higg critic or loyal supporter, we can all agree with Schaffer’s sentiments.

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