Sustainable Fashion Requires a Comprehensive Approach

Sustainable Fashion Requires a Comprehensive Approach
Black and white headshot of Joel Mertens
Joël Mertens
February 27, 2023

Since our inception in 2009, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) has always recognized that sustainability is a multifaceted topic. From an environmental perspective, to social and labor issues at a global scale, there are a multitude of aspects to take into consideration, including: impacts in creating different synthetic and natural raw materials, the manufacturing decisions to convert those raw materials into products, the number of times a product is used to what happens to it at the end of its life, as well as responsible purchasing practices and the conditions in which garment makers work.

Given this complex reality, measuring sustainability can never be narrowed down to one single criterion. We have always advocated that our members, including retailers, brands, manufacturers and affiliates, adopt a broad approach – ensuring production methods, social impacts, and the entire value chain are considered. That’s why our Higg Index suite of tools for measuring sustainability cover topics as varied as water use, carbon emissions, and labor conditions.

In conjunction with industry specialists, our world class team of experts have created this array of tools to measure impacts at every point in a piece of apparel’s life cycle – reflecting real world complexity. Working with experts, our tools continue to evolve with scientific and data developments, alongside of course the needs of our members. They have been developed based on intervention points that we know make a difference to impact, including those that aren’t always directly quantifiable. Here are just some of the subjects they tackle:

 

Emissions

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is vital. To achieve net zero and stop global warming from spiraling out-of-control, it’s essential that all manufacturers, retailers, brands, and suppliers urgently decarbonize. The first step in doing so is to measure current emissions. To help our members do this properly, our tools offer a comprehensive approach.

Take our Higg Material Sustainability Index (MSI) as a case in point, which has recently been updated to include more than 20 new materials and processes, making it one of the largest updates that the tool has experienced. Using primary data submitted by our members and other industry players, it assesses the complete cradle-to-grave impacts of different materials, including emissions.

The process data in the Higg MSI uses an LCA approach that factors in all the way to Scope 3 emissions. This includes indirect emissions that may be otherwise hidden from a user, like the energy required to mine resources, and all the manufacturing emissions related to the upstream value chain inputs. To drive collective and urgent action on emissions reduction, we recently launched our Decarbonization Program. It requires all our members to set Science-Based Targets, which provide a clearly defined path to reduce emissions in line with Paris Agreement goals, and we are educating members and sharing best practices on how to set targets and implement them.

 

Supply Chains

Fashion is a complex global industry, with supply chains criss crossing continents. In this context, true sustainability can only be achieved through collective action. No brand or retailer can do this alone. Each is reliant on multiple suppliers and must bring them on its sustainability journey.

Accordingly, we advise all our members to map out and understand their supply chains, and work with them to develop roadmaps to set targets and drive improvements. This includes decarbonization, reducing water consumption, cutting waste, and ensuring fair pay and conditions for all workers.

To this end, our Higg Facility Environmental Module (FEM) offers insights for manufacturers, brands, and retailers on the environmental performance of individual factories or production facilities. For example, it measures the carbon intensity of their manufacturing processes based on the energy grid mix – in terms of renewables versus fossil fuels – of their geographic location, when that information is available and can be independently validated.

In practice, this means it can show the difference in manufacturing emissions in countries like Indonesia or China, where the energy grids tend to be more fossil-fuel-based, versus somewhere like Europe, where renewables are more common.

From a social perspective, our Higg Facility Social & Labor Module (Higg FSLM) helps to promote safe and fair social and labor conditions for value chain workers all over the world. It offers not only a scoring model eliminating the need for brands to conduct individual audits to assess facilities’ performance, and reduce audit fatigue, but allows businesses to dedicate time and resources to making lasting systemic changes, instead of focusing on compliance.

 

Product Processing Choices

Fashion brands must also consider how products are made. Different methods result in different emissions and environmental impacts. To keep their carbon footprint to a minimum, companies can compare the scale of emissions generated by different processes using our Higg MSI. To make this comparison possible, we use an industry average in terms of the carbon intensity of the energy grid mix. Once they’ve compared the relative impacts of similar processes, they can then use our Higg FEM to select which factory, in which part of the world, offers the right process in combination with a low-carbon local energy grid mix.

 

Different Fabrics

Raw materials are significant, although sometimes their importance can be overestimated. The reality is that they are just one part of the picture. Using impact data from the Higg MSI, the World Resources Institute and Apparel Impact Institute released a report which revealed that raw materials only account for roughly a quarter of the impact of manufacturing a product – even before including use or end of life.

The nature of a fabric – whether or not it is natural, synthetic, organic, or recycled – is not the predominant issue in how sustainable it is, as the interventions highlighted from that report show.

Indeed, data from our Higg MSI shows that simply switching fibers often doesn’t result in any meaningful reduction in a garment’s carbon footprint. Other factors – like the emissions embedded in its production – tend to be more influential. These choices also tend to have less effect on the functionality of a product. A design brief often specifies the type of material that should be used, since this changes the function of a product. Polyester t-shirts and cotton t-shirts are different. But the decision to dye a fabric in a conventional way or to use a lower impact method isn’t something that’s typically specified in a product brief and is something that can be influenced directly.

 

Wears Per Garment

Poorly designed clothing is clearly less sustainable than high quality garments that are loved and used for years on end. We believe it’s crucial that the quality and longevity of a brand’s products are assessed as part of their sustainability ranking. Our Higg Product Module (PM) measures the cradle-to-grave environmental impacts of a product from the point of resource extraction to manufacturing impacts, all the way through product durability, care, and end of use. The default reporting metric of the Higg PM considers both the total footprint of the product and how long it will be used for (wears per garment), and we’ve continued to advocate and support this ‘impact per wear’ approach as part of our role in developing the PEFCR Technical Secretariat.

 

True Sustainability

An umbrella term covering a series of interlinked issues, sustainability is multifaceted. Sometimes, addressing one requires trade offs elsewhere. The key is to analyze the most scientifically accurate data in every area and then create a comprehensive plan. There are seldom simple fixes.

But we must not let the scale of the challenge daunt us. The fashion world is packed full of extraordinary talent. We have the tools, skills, creativity, and capability to embark on this collective journey of self-improvement. When it comes to protecting both people and the planet, we should always aspire to be better. In practice, this means taking a broad approach.

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