If you’re a fast fashion retailer, aiming to become sustainable, it’s fairly self-evident that you have multiple challenging issues to resolve. And resolve at scale. By definition, this is an area where the numbers get very large very quickly.
It’s natural that companies in that position seek a route-map of how to proceed. A rating system that highlights what’s good practice, and what should be avoided. For the apparel sector such a rating system has a name – the Higg Index. And in recent months, it has become a case study in exactly how such an operation can go horribly wrong.
The truth is that any rating system is only as good as the assumptions that go into it. If you have a system that becomes too complex (those multiple challenging issues, remember) or is not fully thought through or, even worse, is trying to pronounce on an area where a definitive position is unavailable – you have a recipe for unintended consequences.
Those come at scale as well, and very much in public.
The big brands behind the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), which had established the Higg Index, including the likes of H&M, Primark and Walmart, don’t just want a methodology they can follow behind the scenes. They also want a marketing label they can use to highlight their green credentials and get reputational benefit for the work they’re doing. Which is understandable, but immensely fraught with difficulty.
The consumer label aspect of the Higg Index was duly created in 2021. The principle was that it gave shoppers the power to understand how well products compare on areas such as greenhouse gas emissions, water use and pollution.
In this case, the weak link that caught the media’s attention was how the index dealt with conflicting perspectives. Specifically, it rated “vegan leather” as more environmentally sound than natural fibres, including actual leather.
What is ‘vegan’?
The problem is that vegan leather may be vegan, but it’s also a petroleum-based synthetic material. It used to be called plastic leather, which sounds less appealing than the smartly rebranded version.
How does a green rating system end up scoring products based on fossil fuels more highly than natural materials, people asked? Of course, natural materials can have all sorts of impacts, but even so.
It's not just leather. Silk-producing countries complained to the US Federal Trade Commission accusing the Higg Index of causing unjustified damage to the industry with its claims that silk was 30 times worse for the planet than synthetic products.
The SAC defended its methodology, but after the Norway Consumer Authority banned its use in marketing to consumers, it put the consumer-facing part on hold while an independent review looks again at the details. Obviously, a product label that becomes famous for having lost trust is worse than useless.
Meanwhile, what’s been done to date is possibly having real consequences. Leather is a side-product, after all, of the still-thriving beef and dairy industries. Now, industry officials have said that all the perfectly good hides from slaughtered cattle are finding reduced demand in the face of “more sustainable” polyurethane. So, in 2020, according to the New York Times, 5m such hides were sent to landfill. A shocking waste of a high-quality material.
Would the answer be to make the Higg Index more complex still? To more accurately reflect the emissions from the fossil fuels that make up the plastics? And how do you weight in the amount of plastic that ends up in landfills? And can you even begin to deal with the fact that microplastics shed by fabrics end up in the world’s oceans?
Never mind that, how do you deal with the fact that different sources of the same material can have hugely variable impacts? Rain-fed cotton versus irrigation? Irrigation in a water-rich environment versus a water-sparse one?
The SAC believes such problems can be added in once better data becomes available, but really it is open to question as to whether throwing so many parameters into a system simply guarantees you end up with something unwieldy and dysfunctional.
A huge and ever-changing soup of trade-offs isn’t an obvious recipe for an effective consumer label. Nor indeed any kind of rating system that will give scores, and the illusion of precision that hard numbers convey, to companies.
And therein lies the real challenge. Arguably, the theory of change behind the Higg Index – how it’s supposed to improve the world – is flawed. It is predicated on the presumption of all similar eco-labels, that if you can only make all the impacts visible to the public, then people will stop buying products that have problematic supply chains and the market will push the fashion industry towards sustainability.
This rationale clings for support to polls such as the 2020 one by McKinsey, which said that 67% of consumers “consider the use of sustainable materials to be an important purchasing factor”. What people say to pollsters and what they do when they are actually making buying decisions are well known to be different things. But even if they weren’t, does such a poll even ask the right question?
The issue at the heart of fast fashion is that of simple volume. Are there any materials that can emerge with credit if pushed to the huge scale required to enable people to buy clothes to wear a couple of times before discarding? That didn’t used to be the expectation of human societies – garments were built to last and fashions changed but slowly. Driven by the interests of its member brands as it is (with revenues of $750bn), is the Higg Index focused on the wrong problem?
Rather than – how to make fast fashion sustainable, it should perhaps be – how to make slow fashion profitable?
It could only happen if consumers demanded it. And for all that people argue that there is a generational transformation going on, it doesn’t seem to be on the cards.
As American comedian Bill Marr recently pointed out, the idea that the new crop of young people is Greta’s generation, the one that finally cares about all this stuff, simply isn’t true. Greta (Twitter following five million) is wholly eclipsed by Kylie Jenner (Instagram following 368 million), and the brutal fact is that this generation still loves fast fashion. And it would love nothing more than to have a single consumer label that meant they could do so without guilt.
The likely result is that this is a problem the solutions to which will evolve over time. Tomorrow’s solution will constitute progress, but may be disregarded as inadequate within the decade. The current instability with inflation, energy prices and global instability, may force changes that would otherwise have taken longer to become realistic.
In amongst all of this, sources of better information about what’s happening and with what impact will certainly be needed. The Higg Index remains a hugely important exercise to document and understand better the material realities behind the world’s largest apparel brands as they face a rapidly changing world.
But given the scale of consequences, it needs to abandon its aspirations of changing the world through labelling. It’s just not how it’s going to happen.