If the circular economy is to scale beyond a relative handful of companies engaging in a relative handful of initiatives, it’ll need some pretty powerful tools to enable them to assess the impacts of their products across the full value chain: design, materials selection, sourcing, manufacturing, packaging, transportation, merchandising, customer use and beyond.
And to leverage those insights to create the next generation of sustainable, circular, even regenerative products.
Without such a holistic perspective, companies likely will continue to tinker at the margins of circularity: substituting a renewable material here, increasing recyclability there, or maybe creating a program to take back and refurbish or reuse old products.
Tomorrow, at Circularity 21, a new tool will be launched that just might change the game: the Higg Product Module, part of a suite of applications created by the self-described "sustainability insights" startup Higg in partnership with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC).
Marketed as "the only software tool on the market that can help companies calculate at scale the environmental footprint of their products beyond carbon emissions," it stands to raise the bar not just on sustainable and circular materials and products but also the transparency that increasingly is being demanded from a variety of stakeholders.
It stands to raise the bar not just on sustainable and circular materials and products but also transparency.
Last week, I received a Cook’s tour of the platform by its lead developer and spoke with Higg’s CEO to understand how the new tool works and how it could be a game-changer. I came away with a newfound appreciation for the complexity companies face in baking sustainability into their products in a deep and meaningful way.
The Higg Product Module was designed to move beyond a "materials-only" view of product impact, the company said. In addition to the aspects you might expect — environmental assessments of a product’s design, manufacturing, packaging and logistics — it considers the impacts of product durability, customer care of the product, and the waste associated with "excess production." More than 150 companies already have used the tool to assess over 1,000 products, according to the company. Many of these companies are members of the SAC, which developed the tool’s methodology.
The launch of the Product Module represents a long journey for Jason Kibbey, Higg’s CEO, going back to 2010, when SAC was formed by a group of apparel and footwear companies to develop the Higg Index, a suite of tools that measure environmental and social labor impacts across the value chain. (The name "Higg" was inspired by Higgs Boson, the scientific search for a fundamental particle that gives mass to other fundamental particles such as electrons and quarks. The name was also short, easy to pronounce and trademarkable in 120 countries.)
"We wanted to get to the question, what is the footprint of a product across many different impact categories?" Kibbey, who was SAC employee No. 1 before leaving in 2019 to launch Higg, told me. "How do you scale that in a standardized and impactful way quickly so that you can do this for lots and lots of products?"
And, beyond that, how do you share the resulting information with consumers, investors, regulators and other interested parties in a comprehensive and consistent way?
The methodology for the Product Module was developed by the nonprofit SAC, which spun off its technology efforts into the for-profit Higg in 2019. "To really make these tools grow and get used, you have to put it on a technology platform or there's no way to collect the data, there's no way to share it," Kibbey explained. "And you can't really do that well in the context of an industry association."
Choices and more choices
The Product Module is one of several applications that comprise the Higg platform, including those for such tasks as calculating social impacts and retail practices. The newest module is essentially a life-cycle assessment tool that harnesses a methodology that's been broadly agreed upon by the footwear and apparel industry, enabling comparability across products, brands and borders. It also syncs with existing programs and standards, such as the Product Environmental Footprint, a method for measuring product sustainability being developed by the European Commission in cooperation with companies and sustainability experts.
I asked Joël Mertens, director of Higg Product Tools at SAC, for a tour of the new module.
Mertens took the software through its paces for a hypothetical T-shirt: the raw material source, the yarn formation method, the textile formation, coloring, dyeing — and the various potential dyeing processes: continuous, batch, adsorption, diffusion and others. "There's guidance provided to the users on how to select the right process, because there are many, many processes available," explained Mertens, previously a material technologies integrity engineer for an outdoor equipment retailer.
With each choice, the tool calculates the product’s impact on global warming, eutrophication, water scarcity, resource depletion and chemistry.
There’s a breathtakingly complex set of options, even for a T-shirt, never mind a pair of jeans, a jacket or pair of shoes, which could have scores of materials and production choices. Every component — zippers, buttons, trim, laces, waterproofing, screenprinting, lamination, even the hangtag — can involve its own submenu of choices, each with its own set of environmental impacts and tradeoffs, with changes shown in real time on the module’s dashboard.
Those choices — and their impacts — continue after the garment is made. Consider retail, for example — not an aspect typically found in life-cycle management tools. "The idea here is what's the average amount of energy and water consumed in your distribution center and retail operations," Mertens said. "If a brand knows their retail footprint, their distribution center footprint, they can go in and update these numbers to reflect accurately their products. So, if I'm using renewable energy, for instance, I would be able to go and adjust the amount of energy here," he noted, showing one of the dropdown menus.
Consumer use is another factor, as Mertens demonstrated. "We have standardized care scenarios of how many times a product is worn before being washed, based on consumer survey data that was submitted to us. So, for example, if I switch to wool, the average consumer is going to wear it more often before they wash it" compared to, say, cotton. Those calculations become part of a product’s overall footprint.
Partial screenshot of the Higg Product Module showing the impacts for a hypothetical T-shirt.
Still another category is product reuse. "If I have a product that's already had its lifetime fulfilled, and I want to be able to refurbish it into a new product, all the manufacturing impacts of it are considered to have already been met and it comes into that second lifetime burden-free," Mertens explained. "In LCA language, it's called the cutoff principle — how you allocate the burden between the first, second and subsequent lives. So, if a brand is collecting a product and refurbishing it, we can reflect that."
The new normal?
The Higg module isn’t the first LCA tool to take on some of these choices. Part of what sets it apart is its scalability. "The apparel industry cranks out 100 billion units a year," Kibbey said. "It's a huge volume of products to footprint, and so any technology solution we create has to work in a context like fast fashion, where they're cranking out T-shirts very, very quickly, as well as a luxury item, where it's much slower and often done with small artisan producers."
I asked Kibbey what his biggest surprise was when developing the Product Module.
"I was surprised at how certain synthetic materials performed on things like water and carbon, as well as the impacts often unseen and undiscussed of natural fibers. There's a lot of oil in natural fibers because of things like synthetic nitrogen fertilizers."
The goal is to quickly adapt the tool beyond footwear and apparel, and Kibbey said that Higg already is testing the platform with brands in other product categories. I asked him whether he was concerned about how the controversies that often surround life-cycle analysis might play out in sectors that haven’t collaborated the way that SAC members have.
"A life-cycle assessment is highly political," he acknowledged. "Getting agreement on the way that the methodology should come together is hard, and getting all parties to agree that these are the things that matter when you're trying to calculate a product’s footprint is incredibly difficult and fraught. You're never going to please everyone when you're summing the impacts of a product because it will make some products look better or worse than others."
Still, Kibbey said, diving deeper into products’ impacts is rapidly becoming the new normal.
"We're living in a world where all of our impacts are going to be calculated, they're going to have to be reduced and they're going to be shown in the light of day," he said. "I think the writing is on the wall that if we're going to live in a 1.5-degree world, we all have to measure everything we do. We have to decarbonize, and we want to do that without creating unintended consequences. So, it can't just be looking at carbon alone. I think this is the future that we live in."
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