Newly released environmental index helps apparel companies minimize impact

The outdoor industry is farther along the road to enhanced sustainability efforts with the late July launch of the Higg Index, a tool to quantify and reduce the environmental impact of apparel throughout its life cycle, from materials to manufacturing to use.
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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2012 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Aug. 2-5. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

This SNEWS Outdoor Retailer Summer Market recap is brought to you by Cordura:


The outdoor industry is farther along the road to enhanced sustainability efforts with the late July launch of the Higg Index, a tool to quantify and reduce the environmental impact of apparel throughout its life cycle, from materials to manufacturing to use. Developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the index has even been adopted by retail giants like Walmart, Target and Kohl’s.

The Outdoor Industry Association’s Sustainability Working Group helped spearhead this effort five years ago when it began work on an Eco Index. That index, along with the Materials Assessment Tool developed by Nike, form the foundation of the Higg Index.

The index measures environmental effects related to water and air quality, waste and chemical toxicity, and is available to any company that wants to self-regulate its compliance in these areas.

Beth Jensen, OIA’s director of corporate responsibility, traces the index’s evolution to Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2006, when Timberland launched its green initiative and some other companies were beginning to look at similar efforts. “People started saying we should have an industry-wide system for benchmarking and developing a common language for product sustainability,” she said. “The industry really organized itself, coming together to form the working group.” A few years later, OIA started to provide support and recognized the Sustainability Working Group as an official initiative. The partnership with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition was forged in 2011.

The Higg Index is poised to continue the success enabled by the first-generation Eco Index. Jensen cites REI, New Balance, Icebreaker and Keen as companies that identified product impacts under that original index and implemented changes to reduce them.

Another company that benefited was Polartec. Chuck Haryslak, senior product development engineer, said the company had measured its production facilities and materials against the Eco Index in ways that ultimately benefited consumers. “From a facility standpoint, it’s been great,” he said. “It showed us opportunities of where we needed to improve water use and chemical management.” He also mentioned evaluating potential fiber blends and other components in terms of the index to confirm that Polartec, which already sources recycled materials, was being environmentally conscious.

The Sustainability Working Group is now more than 250 members strong and is developing indices for footwear and hardgoods, as well as efforts to manage chemicals in the supply chain, trace raw materials back to ethical producers and promote social responsibility and fair labor practices.

The next natural step would be to create a consumer-focused sustainability index that could be displayed on hangtags. “That’s always been in mind as an ultimate goal,” Jensen said.

--Cindy Hirschfeld

What’s in a Name?

If the Higg Index calls to mind the name of a certain celebrated subatomic particle, you wouldn’t be far off the mark. According to OIA’s Beth Jensen, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition hired a branding firm to come up with a neutral-sounding name for the initiative. Drawing from the name of the Higgs boson particle seemed a clever way to imply that the index is a game-changer. Jensen did note that they were looking for an “agnostic” name — funny, then, that inspiration came from the so-called “god particle.”

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