Revisiting Higg

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) brought the Higg FEM 3.0 to market this year. I wrote a review of the Higg Index Facilities Environment Module version 3– its technical name– back in November of last year, saying that a quality execution of Higg’s ‘great idea’ was critical to its success.

Higg FEM is an industry standard tool designed to engage textile, footwear, and apparel manufacturers on developing baseline data and benchmarking environmental performance. SAC has set a target of 20,000 factories using the tool by 2020 with 7,000 already on-board.

However technical problems have plagued the FEM 3.0 since its launch. SAC continues to release buggy (or sometimes unusable) software, inconsistent or inaccurate technical guidance and missed product delivery schedules.

Market confidence with brands and suppliers is suffering. Companies are reluctant to rely on FEM as a result– brands have delayed their Higg implementation or continue to use other sustainability tools alongside the Higg. Ironically this is increasing the audit load for suppliers in 2018, rather than reducing audit fatigue, which is one of the FEM’s main objectives.

The impact on manufacturer enthusiasm is obvious– at a recent SAC Manufacturers Forum in Hong Kong, less than 20% of the audience was in fact a manufacturer.  

After six years in the market it is difficult to tell how much of a positive environmental impact FEM has had, not least because the different Higg versions are not compatible. A supplier’s score under Higg FEM 2.0 cannot be compared with their score under FEM 3.0, which makes year-on-year comparison impossible.

The most recent IPCC report made it clear that meaningful change needs to rapidly take place, and what SAC seems to forget is that every delay, every sub-standard product, and every disappointed user carries an environmental opportunity cost. After six years, we should be able to see millions of tonnes of carbon saved, thousands of communities protected through improved quality of wastewater discharge, and thousands of suppliers spending less time filling in brand questionnaires and more time (and money) working on reducing their environmental footprint. And we don’t.

Higg is occupying significant real estate in the sustainability marketplace and needs to perform. Ideally SAC would set performance goals to help drive this. For example the following goals can be tracked using FEM 3.0 data:

  • 100% compliance with national wastewater standards or voluntary wastewater standards such as ZDHC wastewater guidelines.
  • 50% of wet processing facilities use an effective manufacturer restricted substance lists (MRSL) programme to manage their chemical inventory.
  • Decreasing annual carbon emissions and or water use per manufacturing site.

It’s time to assess Higg FEM in terms of its demonstrated environmental impact and for SAC to be accountable not for the the number of factories filling in Higg forms but for how well their tool supports these factories to improve.