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Sustainable Apparel Coalition hits pause on consumer-facing transparency programme for 'urgent review' of its MSI

Tue 28 Jun 2022 | 11:26 am GMT
Rob Hutchins | Products of Change Writer

Higg Index consumer facing transparency tool paused by Sustainable Apparel Coalition over greenwashing concerns raised by NCA

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition has hit pause on its consumer facing transparency programme and commissioning 'with urgency' a review of the data behind the Higg Materials Sustainability Index after a report by the Norwegian Consumer Authority (NCA) gave rise to concerns over greenwashing and the misleading of consumers. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s ceo, Amina Razvi, confirmed this week that the organisation will be working closely with the NCA and other stakeholders and regulators to “better understand how to substantiate product level claims with credible data.” The SAC will be carrying out a third-party review “with urgency” of the Higg Materials Sustainability Index data and methodology, a module of The Higg Index suite of tools that scores the environmental impacts of materials. It was last evaluated in 2016. The SAC – a trade group that counts on its roster some 250 brands, retailers, and manufacturers, including Patagonia, H&M, Adidas, and Gap - will be working on a programme alongside other organisations to update its data. SAC's Transparency Programme is a consumer-facing programme introduced last year to offer ‘at-a-glance information’ about the impact of apparel and footwear items across factors such as water, greenhouse-gas emissions, and fossil fuels. In a statement, Amina Razvi, said: “As an organisation focused on driving positive environmental change in the fashion industry, we take the notification from the NCA extremely seriously. It is critical we seek to understand how to improve this work and act urgently and decisively to ensure the changes that are needed both in the industry and at consumer level are accelerated, and not deleted by the lack of harmonised legislation and clear guidance from regulators.” The Higg Index has been subject to growing criticism since a report from the NCA found its system appeared to have broken guidelines under Norway’s Marketing Control Act, which targets green claims made by businesses, and could potentially see it banned from being used throughout Norway. Norrona and H&M were among a suite of brands to have piloted the Higg Index Transparency Programme with the goal of providing shoppers with “unprecedented visibility” into a product’s impact. However, the Norwegian authorities suggest the tool is ‘not sufficient as a basis for the environmental claims they have used in marketing’. The NCA’s director, Trond Ronnigen said the Higg Index could ultimately be misleading to consumers. The NCA uses Norrona’s employment of a transparency visual scorecard as its prime example. The scorecard indicated that its organic cotton t-shirts produced 14 per cent fewer emissions, used nine per cent less fossil fuel, required 88 per cent less water and created 47 per cent less water pollutant than their conventional counterparts. The NCA believes these claims misled consumers because they referred to the average environmental attributes of the cotton fibre, not those of the specific finished items. This meant there was insufficient proof that the claimed impact reductions were ‘true and correct.’ In conclusions drawn on June 16, the NCA said the “global average number failed to capture the local variations in resource usage and environmental impact.” It went on to say: “There are significant differences in the way cotton is grown and how much water farmers use, as well as how and if they use these inputs efficiently. For example, climate, rainfall, and irrigation technology greatly vary from one farm, country and/or region to another.” Higg Index is best used “as one source among many” Concerns over the Higg Index – fuelled by the NCA’s conclusions - were first broadcast to the mainstream in a New York Times article earlier this year. The feature brought to light the many hurdles in delivering a consumer-facing transparency tool based on the white paper co-authored by the independent sustainability claims analyst, Veronica Bates Kassatly. “The general message with all rating and certification systems and processes is ‘be careful,’ says Products of Change’s Advisor, Arthur Parry. “We all need to be conscious of what is and isn’t implied by the rating or score – whether we are in the business of making and selling garments or purchasing and using them.” “Looking at the facts, The Higg Index is – to a large extent – based on self-assessment. While the SAC has been steadily introducing verification, it would be prudent for companies using the Index as a reference to bear in mind that it is largely based on companies using the set of tools provided to assess and report on their own data. “This certainly doesn’t automatically mean the Index is of no use, but rather that it should be just one source of information among many.” Much of the recent debate regarding the Higg Index – and certainly the thrust of the argument in the New York Times article - has concerned an impression that it favours the use of synthetic fibres over natural fibres. However, the SAC’s ceo, Amina Razvi has been quick to counter this narrative, highlighting that the “purpose of the MSI is to show designers and developers where environmental hotspots are in the production of a material, by breaking down the impact categories such as greenhouse gas emissions.” “Stating that the Higg MSI favours synthetic materials over natural ones is incorrect. It does not favour synthetic over natural fibres and it was not designed to compare the two.” Another argument to have emerged from the publication of Veronica’s white paper is that many product Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) tools measure only on a ‘cradle to gate’ basis. “Extreme care has to be taken with such comparisons, particularly since many such indices are measuring from ‘cradle to gate’ – or the point at which the garment leaves the factory, rather than from ‘cradle to grave,’” continues Arthur. “In many cases, the larger part of the total lifecycle impacts come from retail, usage, and disposal.” Avoiding the greenwash Last year, the UK government introduced its Green Claims Code, a six-point guidance on how to not be caught up in greenwashing when marketing and highlighting the sustainability of products to consumers. The six key points in the guidance state that you must:  
  • Be truthful and accurate
  • Be clear and unambiguous
  • Not omit or hide important information
  • Only make fair and meaningful comparisons
  • Consider the full life cycle of the product
  • Be substantiated
  “In order to demonstrate compliance with this it is not sufficient to rely on a rating or certification alone,” suggests Arthur. “It is incumbent upon the brand or retailer making the claim to ensure they can source and provide the specific data related to their own circumstances in order to defend the claim they have made. “Providing an endorsement, such as a rating score, in the absence of any other information could have the potential to be challenged on at least points three, four, and five in that list, depending on specific circumstances.” With this said, tools associated with various ratings and certifications “can be of genuine use,” adds Arthur. “But before using any such tool, make sure you understand what it does and doesn’t tell you. “Does it cover the full lifecycle of the product in question? Does it allow reliable comparison between products of different types or those using different raw materials? Does the score intuitively allow your customer to understand what the true environmental impact is?” “Imperfection versus planetary inaction…?”  The Sourcing Journal reports that in a statement published on the Higg website, ceo Jason Kibbey says the Higg Index was built with the premise that transparent data is essential for accelerating change and urged regulators to agree on a unified approach to data-backed consumer product claims.” Speaking with Sourcing Journal, he said: “Fashion companies need to reduce the impact of their materials immediately. Before the MSI, there was no universally comparable tools that allowed companies to understand and benchmark the impact of their material choices. “The MSI represents the first attempt by the industry to pool data for collective benefit. While any tool that leads to comparisons will by nature be imperfect, that imperfection must be weighed against the planetary cost of inaction.”
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