Tue, Jun

I believe it can fly

Why you should be aware of the fledgling Higg List eco index.

Heard of the Higg Index yet? Indications are that you will, and that one-day it will impact upon the way you do business - and who with - because this is a fledgling eco index that promises to fly far and high.

The Higg Index appeared in June last year, born out of the largest collaboration of leading apparel brands and retailers working together to measure the ecological impact of suppliers’ manufacturing processes. Brands and their supply chains within the outdoor apparel sector began piloting the index in summer 2012 and though it will be internal facing for some time yet, the likelihood is that it will segue into a much wider effort with ramifications for everyone involved in the retail space.

To understand what it’s all about you have to look back to 2007 when Timberland joined forces with outdoor retailer REI to launch a group within the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) that was then called the Eco Working Group. This group set out to find a common way to measure the performance of outdoor industry products, the impetus for the project being a ‘nutrition label’ concept that Timberland had introduced the preceding year. This label included the company’s ‘Green Index’ information - essentially a tool the retailer developed in-house to try   and provide some objective measure on the environmental performance of its products.

As Betsy Blaisdell, Timberland’s senior manager of environmental stewardship, explained: “REI and others thought, ‘That’s a really cool idea. What if we came up with something similar so that consumers could make more informed purchasing decisions?’”.

What started as a small group of leading outdoor brands turned into an industry-wide effort involving nearly 200 brands and their suppliers. The initiative got so much momentum that other industry sectors took notice and organised to adopt the tool.

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), the largest network of apparel brands and retailers, began working on the project and in addition to leveraging the OIA’s work, also incorporated data from Nike to make a tool specific to the entire apparel industry.

The result was an Excel-based tool that asks “literally hundreds of questions,” according to Blaisdell. The scores are then broken down into three areas: a brand-level score, which measures how the brand is managing its environmental footprint from a policy standpoint; a facility-level score, which measures the impacts of suppliers’ manufacturing processes; and a product-level score, which allows one product to be rated against another in terms of its environmental footprint.

The SAC voted to approve this new index in June 2012 and renamed it the Higg Index. The hope is that the culmination of this work will be an index that allows brands to work with retailers and suppliers to make decisions that are informed by environmental and social impacts.

As Blaisdell puts it: “No one brand can really move the needle on its own. It’s through collaborative efforts like these that we can see improvements in the environmental performance of our supply chain.”

Why bother? Timberland president Patrik Frisk puts it this way: “Our commitment to sustainability dates back nearly 40 years and continues today, a core belief that business can create positive impact in the world. Our initiatives have proven that corporate responsibility doesn’t need to be an add-on, but instead can be a powerful competitive advantage. Timberland’s corporate responsibility leadership was one of the drivers in the company’s acquisition by VF Corporation in 2011. When a $9 billion apparel and footwear powerhouse is attracted to a brand (in part) due to its innovative approach to sustainability, you know there’s business value.”

If this is how brands like Timberland are thinking and behaving how likely is it that others will follow suit? It’s surely a rhetorical question, in which case the newborn Higg List is likely to develop into a powerful animal.


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