The third coming of the HIGG Index

Back in 2012 RESET worked with Hong Kong’s Central Textiles to conduct one of the first factory assessments using the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index Facilities Environment Module (FEM). Higg is a tool designed to standardise and benchmark environmental reporting of apparel factories so that we end up with a consistent approach to assessing and tracking environmental performance across the entire supply chain. At its simplest level it’s a great idea. In the interim years the number of factories using the standard has jumped to around 8 000 and at the launch of the latest version– FEM 3.0– in November SAC stated a goal of 20 000 factories by 2020.

While this sounds impressive on the surface, the SAC has come in for criticism because the Higg has struggled to demonstrate how uptake is leading to improved environmental performance– see a good piece from respected green business journalist Marc Gunther from 2016.

Our own experience supports this– some companies are genuinely using the Higg to understand and drive performance improvements, while others view it as a box ticking exercise.

It’s not entirely the companies’ fault. The previous version– FEM 2.0– had some serious limitations. For example it did not have a formal verification architecture, but was supported by an SAC pilot programme that failed to ensure strong verifier skill sets or provide quality control on the work of approved verifiers (and how many environmental standards can you think of that lacks a verification framework 5 years after launch?).

FEM 3.0 is supposed to address the failings of the previous system. I believe that the FEM 3.0 will be the litmus test for the success of the SAC model. FEM 3.0’s ‘upgrades’ include:

  • A more streamlined benchmarking methodology.
  • The inclusion of a verification framework managed by a 3rd party consultant Sumerra to go live in Q1 2017.
  • An updated software platform delivered by the Sourcemap team on the Higg.org site. (Still very buggy guys!)
  • A structured programme for training and certifying trainers (i.e. consultants) also to be run by Sumerra.

All of this may sound a bit dull but a quality execution of Higg’s ‘great idea’ is going to be critical to its success and there are a few reasons for this. First, the market has been waiting two years for the FEM 3.0 upgrade and some companies are losing patience. Second, leading market actors have invested hundreds of hours of free time providing input into the various various components and pilots of the FEM 3.0 process. And third, engaging large numbers of new-to-the-tool factory teams, strewn across multiple geographies, is a practical nightmare if the tools they are given don’t work properly. Remember the Higg is not the only show in town.

So while it is important to stay positive, keep the ‘great idea’ in mind, and work through initial teething troubles, after two years development, the SAC and their partners do need to come down into the weeds and make sure the basics are done right. The next six months will tell us if they have been successful.

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