In 2008, an effort to create software was undertaken by a group of companies representing about 100 apparel brands to measure environmental impact of products from "cradle to grave" or more explicitly, from raw material to garbage dump.
According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, this so-called Eco Index was intended to perform similar to the Energy Star rating of appliances. The Eco Index concept was officially announced in August 2010 at the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City. It provided comparative perspectives of brands with relation to environmental and human rights issues. Another way of looking at it is as a sustainability barometer for operations or a litmus test for product greenness.
Some of the companies involved in this effort included Nike, Levi Strauss, Target, Adidas, Timberland, Columbia, and Patagonia. Most consumers are not aware of factors involved with the apparel business such as the toxic chemicals used for leather tanning, crude oil used in the manufacture of synthetic fabrics, incredibly low wages and no benefits for foreign workers, and excessive shipping distances for manufacturing various aspects of apparel. In 2008, Americans discarded 12.4 million tons of textiles, up from 1.8 million tons in 1960.
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition was formed in 2011 and the Higg Index 1.0 was developed and launched in July 2012 as primarily an indicator based tool for apparel that enables companies to evaluate material types, products, facilities and processes based on a range of environmental and product design choices. The Index asks practice-based, qualitative questions to gauge environmental sustainability performance and drive behavior for improvement. It is based largely on the Eco Index and Nike's Apparel Environmental Design Tool, however it has been significantly enhanced through a pilot testing period.
The Higg Index 1.0 is a tool to help organizations standardize how they measure and evaluate environmental performance of apparel products across the supply chain at the brand, product and facility levels. It enables rapid learning through identification of environmental sustainability hot spots and improvement opportunities and it's a starting point of engagement, education, and collaboration among stakeholders in advance of more rigorous assessment efforts.
The Higg Index 1.0 will help both small and large companies to identify challenges and capture on-going improvement. It targets a spectrum of performance that allows beginners and leaders in environmental sustainability, regardless of company size, to identify opportunities. The Eco Index software provided a self-reported score of points on various questions regarding raw material, production, shipping, and disposal. A brand could score points with for example, a wastewater purifying system, a recycling program, good labor standards, less bulky packaging, and even washing in cold instead of hot water. There were estimations involved in the scoring system and proof was not required. In the future, the Higg Index is intended to provide more quantitative feedback, weighting of factors, and verification of the details. It will also be extended to footwear and equipment businesses.
This industry index concept is a beginning but we do not know how much of a motivational factor that it may become in the eyes of consumers. It is admirable that competitors have come together to work on this concept and many of the participating companies have previously undergone an internal analysis of these issues. Environmental issues are driving some product design these days such as printed info on garments instead of separate tags and using less or recycled packaging. And not surprisingly, many of the applicable design ideas save processing costs, too. If such a self-analysis helps companies to change and vie for a higher score, we all will win.