The Higg Index, the Latest Sustainability Farce in Fashion

While fashion industry has unswervingly offered us novel modes of sustainable style in the past two decades, the combined efficiency of that effort has remained negligent, as the fashion industry alone continues to contribute up to 10% to world’s carbon emissions.

The Higg index is one such tool which provides sustainability scores to apparel and footwear, based on a pre-defined criterion, in order to help the customer better understand product origins, its environmental and social impact and make an informed choice.

The problem, however, lies in inaccurate data and misleading information, like touting polyester as one of the most sustainable fabrics in the world. Synthetics broadly and explicitly get a better rating on the index, facilitating the false notion that synthetics are a much more sustainable choice than natural fibres. This is especially iniquitous because not only are synthetics made from petroleum-based products, generating toxic emissions in extraction process, which is a major driver of climate change, they are also non-biodegradable, adding to the annual 15.1 million tons of global textile waste, most of which is dumped into landfills. The index’s demerits are not restricted to this and thus, the very fundamentals of the index need to be scrutinised closely before implementing it globally.

We are all painfully aware of the social and environmental impact of fashion industry and have seen several models and tools to reduce that impact – from resale economy to rental stores and from organic dresses to sugar cane sneakers, the industry wants us to know it’s trying. Meanwhile new collections come out every few weeks and the ubiquitous tags of “vegan”, “organic”, “eco-friendly”, “conscious”, are clipped onto our clothing, deceiving us into believing that the products we are buying are sustainable, creating a guilt free shopping experience, prompting us to shop more without any culpability. However, there is zero transparency regarding how these terms are assigned or what they even signify while consumers continue to shop unabashedly adding to the mounting piles of textile waste.

This is where The Higg Index comes in. Developed by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (a coalition of industry giants – headed by Walmart and Patagonia), the index claims to assess sustainability score of a product, making the consumer aware of every crucial detail of the product – from its water consumption to working conditions in the factory in which it was made, to its carbon footprint.

This is achieved by using three different types of tools: product tools (evaluate the environmental impact of the product itself from its genesis to the point it exits the factory gate – studies a product’s water consumption, water pollution, fossil fuel energy etc), facility tools (evaluate the standards prevailing in the factory – from energy use, emissions, water, waste and chemical management to working conditions, HR policies, working hours, wages, employee treatment etc) and brand and retail tools (the product’s journey through company operations – from supply chain to logistics to packaging, retail points etc). This awareness would then reflect in consumer’s choices, gradually eliminating the environmentally damaging products and brands from the market or alternatively, compelling them to change their practices.

Prima facie, the index comes across as a tool with vast potential to address most ecological and social concerns currently plaguing fashion industry. However, when something seems too good to be true, it probably never is. Not only does the index favour synthetic fabrics over natural fibres on the sustainability score, but it also goes a step ahead and rates polyester as one of the most sustainable fibres in the world, leaving behind cotton, silk and wool.

For the uninitiated, polyester is made from grade 1 plastic or Polyethylene terephthalate and takes up to 200 years to fully degrade and is categorised as a non-biodegradable polymer. When you buy a polyester product (which thanks to the athleisure wave, most of us already have), you buy it for its durability and water-resistant ability, ignoring its carcinogenic nature and the microplastics which often breakdown in the washing machine, adding to the microplastic pollution in oceans.

Also read: The Perils of Fast Fashion: ‘They Belonged to a Dead Foreigner’ and Other Stories

The question then arises that how a data driven index, backed by industry giants with enough currency and resources to set the clock right, is misleading consumers into choosing polyester and other synthetic products over natural fibres. And the answer lies in the very foundation of the index, Sustainable Apparel Coalition which began in 2011 as a coalition of some of the largest fashion brands and retailers in the world to mitigate the environmental damage caused by the fashion industry. With brands like H&M, Nike, ASOS and Boohoo as members of the coalition, it’s only natural that synthetic fibres (which are their main products – polyester, nylon, spandex to name a few) are given better sustainability score on the index to help maintain the sustainability farce and continue selling cheap, fast fashion.

Concerns have also been raised about the research backing the data, which is the baseline for index scores, as experts claim it’s been partly funded by the synthetics industry itself. This lack of transparency regarding the index’s primary data is also the reason for polyester’s high sustainability score – while 85% of world’s polyester is produced in China, the index provides it a sustainability score based on European polyester production practices, presenting a completely different picture, as highlighted in this New York Times investigation.

This preference to synthetics over natural fibres has drastically impacted the natural fibre industry, especially the silk and cotton industry. As per the index, silk is 30 times worse than synthetic products prompting the International Sericulture Commission to register a complaint with Federal Trade Commission, demanding an analysis of global production practices by the index, instead of basing its scores on incomplete, inaccurate information.

Additionally, the leather industry has suffered radically because of the better rating of PU or polyurethane leather, which is essentially plastic, over leather. While meat eaters continue tantalising their taste buds, leather hides block the landfills and consumers keep buying plastic leather in the name of buying vegan substitutes, without realising that they are not tackling one problem but rather creating two.

Take India’s scenario – while beef eaters are constantly under attack and we supposedly revere the cow more than the humans, not only India remains the second largest exporter of leather garments in the world, it’s also the third largest exporter of saddlery and harness and fourth largest exporter of leather goods. This bigotry is not only damaging to society, but also severely detrimental to environment, adding to the 3.5 million tons of plastic waste that India produces annually (India now ranks fifth in generating plastic waste globally).

After years of experimenting with ushering in sustainability, it’s now evident that there is no such thing as sustainable fashion unless you just buy less. And for an industry that thrives on ‘more’, buying less is discouraged at every step. Latest fashion trends, frequent collections, recurrent fashion shows, influencers selling us something new in every picture, cumulatively create an environment conducive to buying more, and denigrating anyone who is not up to date about the same.

In this scenario, it becomes obvious that the industry needs an overhaul, but it’s on the consumer to shoulder the responsibility of making better informed choices and asking the right questions. Because, at the end of the day, fashion is one big business and businesses are driven by demand. So, till the time sustainable fashion remains a myth, the onus of sustainability remains on us.

Rashmi Bagri is a lawyer and researcher from Bangalore.

Featured image: Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann