The Global Change Award is one of the world’s largest innovation challenges founded by the H&M Foundation, in collaboration with Accenture and the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, aiming to catalyze early innovations that can accelerate the shift from a linear to a circular fashion industry.
In 2016, the Global Change Award received 2885 applications from 130 countries. By leveraging Accenture’s capabilities in analytics and data visualization on this large data set, the H&M Foundation was able to identify insights on future trends within sustainable fashion. The intent of this trend report is to provide valuable guidance on the transformative journey towards a circular fashion industry.
Investment in industry-level research and development can give consumers a meaningful metric of sustainability, says former corporate sustainability analyst Mary Hable.
In 2010, fresh out of college with a degree in economics, I began a new job as a corporate sustainability professional at a major apparel retailer. I was hopeful. The apparel industry was full of environmental problems and opportunities for major progress.
At the time, Greenpeace had launched a Detox campaign directly linking textile manufacturing and water pollution, a claim confirmed by the industry’s most influential brands through their organisation of Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals. The Natural Resources Defense Council was building its Clean by Design initiative to collaborate with brands that wanted cost-effective ways to clean up factories in their supply chains. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition was gearing up to foster collaboration among companies, non-governmental organisations, government and academia with the mission of improving the social and environmental performance across the industry. And corporate sustainability departments were being built across the industry.
The problems and opportunities were obvious, but one big thing was missing: Consumers were not clearly rewarding brands for sustainability. Without such an economic payback, brands lacked incentives to develop and deploy systemic sustainability initiatives and so limited themselves to less expensive short-term changes.
As a result, after five years in the field, I’m no longer looking for sustainability solutions to be created within companies. Rather, my view is that the more effective role for brands is to invest in external industry-wide sustainability research and technology aimed at developing those systemic solutions.
To drive investment, industry should track contributions from each company and share the information with consumers. Consumers could then use this information to judge — and reward — brands’ commitment to sustainability. After all, money, unlike environmental impact, is something we already know how to measure well, making sustainability investment a simple metric that can be used to activate consumer choices now.
The bottom line is: Individual apparel industry brands won’t deploy systemic solutions on their own because such solutions are not developed enough to provide either a direct economic payback or an indirect payback through consumer reward for more sustainable choices.
Wanted: Systemic Solutions
On the surface, the sustainability teams I was part of made progress. We found ways to achieve grassroots improvements despite minimal top-down support. At one company, we persuaded executives from design and sourcing to come together to educate each other about sustainability issues and to study what competitors were doing. At another large retailer, management was motivated to invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy, saving money that was used to fund other sustainability projects, such as corporate reporting and more internal education.
These successes, unfortunately, were far outweighed by missed opportunities. For years, we cycled through conversations on using recycled, natural and organic fibers without seeing change. We researched and piloted take-back and donation programmes that didn’t gain traction. We developed strict supply chain monitoring programmes, but couldn’t get key decision-makers to sign off on the next step of including sustainability expectations in business agreements. Ultimately, I watched both sustainability teams that I was a part of be downsized.
This wasn’t surprising. An apparel brand’s fundamental purpose is to sell product, not to promote organic agriculture or develop non-toxic fibers and finishes. To be sure, a handful of values-driven apparel companies have experimented with technologies such as greener chemistry, waterless dyeing, and natural and organic fibers. But those companies are the minority, because such changes are either too costly or risk reducing product performance in the eyes of the consumer. Material choices create the products that are the lifeblood of a brand. Any changes need to be made out of confidence, rooted in strong evidence. Currently, brands lack the data needed to make evidence-based changes.
On material recycling, it was also clear that apparel brands acting on their own couldn’t effectively “close the loop” on clothes and shoes at the end of their useful life. A robust take-back and recycling programme turns a store into a hub of reverse logistics, collecting and sending materials back to a facility that sorts, resells or down-cycles material. All of this takes the store’s focus away from the goal of selling product and creates projects that provide little or no economic payback.
The bottom line is: Individual apparel industry brands won’t deploy systemic solutions on their own because such solutions are not developed enough to provide either a direct economic payback or an indirect payback through consumer reward for more sustainable choices.
Investment as a Metric
Brands will make voluntary investments in sustainability only if consumers clearly reward them for doing so. The problem is, even caring consumers do not have the information they need to know what to reward.
Providing consumers with that information is one of the fundamental pursuits of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC). Since 2009, the SAC has been developing the Higg Index, essentially a sustainability version of a nutrition label. Over the past three months, the SAC has released two important pieces of the Higg Index: The Design and Development Module and the Materials Sustainability Index. The goal of these tools is to provide consumers and brand designers with information they can use to easily compare varying degrees of environmental impact between products.
To measure and ultimately reduce environmental impact, the Higg Index depends on a vast amount of quantitative data grounded in science. For example, it needs to be able to provide a simple recommendation as to whether a 90 per cent recycled polyester blend or a 50 per cent organic cotton blend is the more sustainable choice. Currently, the Higg Index is not complete enough to make such a recommendation.
For a tool like the Higg Index to reduce environmental impact, the industry needs more sustainable technologies and better ways to measure the benefits they provide. What the industry needs now more than anything is a consistent source of funds to develop those data and technologies, such as research and development leading to new fiber and manufacturing technology. Brands can have a more impactful role in advancing sustainability by contributing to an industry fund that supports these initiatives.
Providing simple information on individual brands’ contributions to the fund as a per cent of revenue can drive consumer choices and, consequently, competition between brands on investments.
The downsizing of corporate sustainability positions that I experienced could be a sign that brands are moving away from investing in internal sustainability initiatives. Given the complexity of the issues, that makes sense. Brands don’t need more people working on sustainability. What is needed is financial investment in systemic solutions related to fiber, chemical, and manufacturing research and technology.
Brands can’t create these systemic solutions on their own, but they can help pay for them on an industry level. Providing information to consumers aboutbrands’ investment in industry-wide sustainability would give consumers a powerful tool for making purchases based on sustainability, which would motivate the apparel industry to take action toward reducing its environmental impact.
Mary Hable is a freelance writer and former corporate sustainability analyst in the apparel and footwear industry. She produced this feature as a participant in the Ensia Mentor Program. Her mentor for the project was Marc Gunther.
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), a global industry coalition that is standardizing social and environmental sustainability performance measurement, launched the Higg Index Design and Development Module (DDM). The Higg DDM empowers product designers and developers to make sustainable choices at the earliest stage of apparel, footwear and textile prototype design.
“Product designers and developers’ choices can influence over 80% of the environmental impact created by a product,” said Jason Kibbey, CEO at the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. “Empowering them with credible information to make better choices in the early stages of product creation can benefit the people and communities where the products are made, consumers, and our environment as a whole.”
Designers have the most freedom to minimize eventual environmental impacts of the finished product at the earliest stage of the design process. The data collected through the Higg DDM, which replaces Higg’s Beta Rapid Design Module, helps steer them toward selecting lower impact materials, using more efficient construction techniques, and considering the complete life cycle of the product.
After completing a simple product assessment, the Higg DDM provides members with a single design score, making it easy to compare design concepts and make quick decisions before production. The Higg DDM provides useful benchmarking and analytics that allow users to compare products or defined groups of products to each other, to company averages, and to industry averages. Using the Higg DDM encourages continuous improvement by teaching designers and developers where they have the most control over the impact, and by giving rapid feedback on how to improve their score.
“At Brooks, we are always looking at ways to improve our impact on the environment and communities where we run. The Higg DDM makes it possible for us to connect our product sustainability focus areas into a single tangible score so we can engage our product design team more directly with our sustainability goals,” said David Kemp, Sustainability Manager, Brooks Running Company. “With the scientifically driven MSI at the foundation of the tool , the DDM helps steer our product design teams towards more sustainable design choices that reduce our impact on the earth.”
The Higg Product Tools include the Material Sustainability Index (MSI) Contributor, the Higg MSI, and now the Higg DDM. Each tool help measure product environmental performance at different stages within the product-development cycle , from initial prototype to sourcing raw materials to final design. SAC members have access to all Higg Index tools as part of their membership dues. Non-members can explore the Higg MSI at product.higg.org. Companies or organizations that are not currently members of the SAC and are interested in accessing the Higg DDM, may inquire at apparelcoalition.org/join-us/.
Fast fashion is now the global norm. Producers make more and cheaper clothes and people buy more clothes more often.
It’s a pattern we’ve all become familiar with — department stores with endless variety, clothes that seem to wear out more quickly — but the sheer scale of the situation has reached unsustainable levels. The only way many brands are able to turn a profit is through enormous, ever-increasing volume.
To get a sense of the industry’s size, here are a few startling facts:
Eighty billion pieces of new clothing are consumed each year around the world, a 400% increase from two decades ago.
In the US, 14 million tons of textile waste, mostly clothes, are thrown out annually. That’s approximately 80 pounds per person.
Recycling has often been pitched as a solution to the industry’s problems, specifically the problem of ever-increasing demand for natural resources such as cotton, rubber, oil, and leather.
But it turns out that recycling has a long way to go before it can make a meaningful difference in retail, which has been called the second dirtiest industry in the world after big oil for its agricultural impact, the pollution it causes, and the energy it consumes.
The goal, ultimately, is for the fashion industry to become “circular” through improved recycling methods, minimizing its environmental impact in the process.
“Circular for apparel means that when clothing reaches the end of its useful life we will return it and make new clothing out of our used garments,” Jason Kibbey, CEO of Sustainable Apparel Coalition, told Global Citizen in an interview.
“Getting to circular will require many steps including technological innovation and retraining consumers to take back their clothing instead of sending it to the landfill,” he said.
True circularity is still a far ways off. As Alden Wicker of Newsweek recently wrote, “Only 0.1 percent of all clothing collected by charities and take-back programs is recycled into new textile fiber, according to H&M’s development sustainability manager.”
“We have set the vision of becoming 100% circular. In close dialogue with experts and stakeholders we will set time-bound milestones that take us closer to our goal,” said Anna Gedda, Head of Sustainability at H&M in a press release. “To lead the change towards fully circular and sustainable fashion.”
Kibbey thinks that, while the model is currently insufficient, the investments are paving the way toward a good model.
“H&M’s current practices around recycling are a step toward retraining the consumers which, when combined with emerging recycling technologies, could create this circular model everyone strives for,” he said.
Why Isn’t Recycling Effective?
Currently, the vast majority of recycled clothes cannot be repurposed into quality fabric; a recycled shirt is more likely to become a windshield rag or floor mat then another shirt.
This happens for a few reasons. Modern clothing generally consists of hybrid fibers — polyester and cotton blends, for example — that are hard to separate and process. Fast fashion brands, in particular, use cheaper and often synthetic blends of materials that are hard to disentangle.
Recycling is further complicated by the chemical processes that were used to shape clothing and the chemical dyes that remain in garments. These chemicals can be difficult to remove and can degrade the quality of materials. Then there’s the erosion that occurs when wearing a piece of clothing over time.
So most clothes that are recycled don’t exist in a “closed loop.” Instead, they follow a downward trajectory, eventually ending up in landfills.
As Kibbey noted, a lot of technological advances have to be made before existing clothing materials can be effectively recycled.
Machines have to be developed that can reliably sort through and separate different fabrics and then restore integrity to the fibers so that they can be reused for new clothes — something that Wicker notes is at least five to 10 years out.
There are stories of successful recycling systems being implemented and scaled by large corporations that suggest circular systems are attainable.
For example, Levi is working on jeans made from 100 percent post-consumer cotton.
And then there are big companies like Patagonia that break the pattern by controlling more aspects of production and ensuring that materials can be readily reused, while also promoting the long-term value of the products they sell.
There also seems to be a gradual awakening throughout the industry that future profits hinge on the ability to effectively recycle and for resources to remain viable.
The ideal solution would be for manufacturers to standardize materials production methods. If this happened, then recycling would become exponentially easier.
“Fashion and clothing are indeed a very high impact industry, but the industry is making considerable progress,” Kibbey said. “Nearly 40% of the industry is supporting the Higg Index to measure and improve the impacts of apparel and footwear products.
“Some companies have just released ambitious goals such as Nike’s goal to double its growth and halve its impact,” he said. In Kibbey’s view, Inditex (Zara) and H&M have made bold statements toward circularity.
“There is still a long way to go but I’m optimistic the industry that brought us into the industrial revolution will lead us into the sustainability revolution.”
What can you do in the meantime?
The best thing you can do is buy less and higher quality clothes. This approach has a few benefits. First, it allows you to hold onto clothes for longer, generating less waste and reducing your environmental impact. Second, it signals to companies that they should be developing more sustainable models. If all consumers adopted this approach, then fast fashion would rapidly change.
If you’re interested in taking a more active role, here’s some advice from Kibbey:
“Ask questions of all of the companies you buy from about their efforts to improve the social and environmental impacts of their products,” he said.
“If you aren’t satisfied with the answer you get from a sales associate or a person answering questions on their website, they probably aren’t part of the solution.
“Tell them you won’t shop with them any longer until they do better. Buy products with certifications such as Fair Trade, Blue Sign, or GOTS. They are a great start towards finding and supporting sustainable products. “
When it comes to deciding whether or not to recycle your clothing?
“At the end of the useful life of a garment people should recycle because it will mean the clothing will have the best chance of an afterlife and will likely avoid the landfill even if it doesn’t end up on another person,” Kibbey said.
“They should not recycle solely to free up their closet to buy more items–today that is totally unsustainable,” he said. “When we get to a circular future, that will be normal and sustainable.”
Updated Materials Sustainability Index Empowers Apparel, Footwear and Home Textile Industries with Environmental Data on Thousands of Material Types
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), a global industry coalition that is standardizing social and environmental sustainability performance measurement, today launched a new and improved version of its Higg Materials Sustainability Index (Higg MSI). The Higg MSI is a ground-breaking cradle-to-gate material scoring tool that measures and communicates the environmental performance of thousands of materials used in creating apparel, footwear and home textile products.
The publicly available tool allows design teams and global supply chain participants to select more sustainable materials during product design and development.
“The new materials database/MSI represents a leap forward in standardizing the way apparel companies profile materials, sustainable or otherwise,” said Barruch Ben-Zekry, VF Corporation’s Director of Sustainable Products and Materials. “This provides the type of certainty in interpretation that will help guide our industry toward better materials choices. At VF, we’ve already begun to integrate the MSI into our internal systems of product impact measurement and we will continue to advocate that others do the same.”
The benefits of the updated Higg MSI include:
Contributing to the world’s knowledge about materials and their impacts through a centralized database accessible to the public
Creating a common baseline for material performance against which textile manufacturers can work to improve their performance and differentiate their capabilities with their customers
Providing information in a user-centric way that empowers product designers and developers to iterate on designs while considering sustainability during the product creation process
Reducing data requests of manufacturers, thus saving time and money
Growing the spectrum of known environmental impacts against which material impacts are evaluated including climate change, eutrophication, abiotic resource depletion (fossil fuels), water scarcity and usage, and chemistry
“The updated Higg MSI paves the way for deeper material transparency and awareness of environmental impacts,” said Jason Kibbey, CEO of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. “It is a vital addition to the Higg Index allowing us to do brand, facility, and product level assessment.”
How It Works
The original version of the Higg MSI was developed by Nike and later adopted by the SAC in 2012 and incorporated into the SAC’s Higg Index. Since then, SAC has updated the methodology, technology, and datasets to create an unparalleled tool for evaluating the environmental impacts produced by materials from extraction through manufacturing.
Participating material and textile manufacturers to submit commonly used production data via the Higg MSI Contributor to be scored and publicly recognized in the Higg MSI. Once data is submitted, it is reviewed and verified by Thomas Gloria, Ph.D., Managing Director of Industrial Ecology Consultants, a leading material expert. Once data is approved it is scored and entered into the Higg MSI according to a specific and robust scoring methodology. Dr. Gloria was also part of a team of LCA experts and industry leaders that determined the scoring methodology, and believes that “the Higg MSI is an unprecedented industry-wide collaborative effort to apply leading science-based approaches to support sustainable design decisions.” To learn more about how impacts are calculated and the process and costs for submitting data, please visithttp://msicontributor.higg.org.
The global apparel industry leaves a significant environmental footprint across each step in the clothing lifecycle. As consumers become aware of this reality, they are increasingly demanding products produced from sustainable resources with minimum environmental impact.
According to a recent study by Boston Consulting Group, 50 percent of Millennials believe brands “say something about who I am, my values, and where I fit in,” while a recent Nielsen study found that three out of four Millennials — a coveted audience for any apparel company — are willing to pay extra for sustainable product offerings. Fashion brands that ignore the clear preference of Millennials for sustainable products and the business opportunity this presents do so at their peril.
To address the concern of the apparel industry’s environmental footprint as well as the opportunity to build brand loyalty with Millennials and increase market share, sustainability has come to the forefront of the industry. Major fashion brand leaders are incorporating sustainability strategies into their business models and growth strategies, and reevaluating their supply chains to identify and pursue opportunities to reduce petroleum use, carbon emissions, water use and waste throughout the value chain.
As sustainability bubbles to the top of the priority list in the apparel industry, formal measurement and assessment tools have been established to help drive improved environmental and social performance. As the old adage goes, “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.”
Textile Exchange released its Preferred Fibers & Material (PFM) Benchmark program this year, following an initial trial in 2015. An astounding 89 brands and retailers from across multiple countries and product sectors have submitted entries. The PFM Benchmark provides a robust structure to help companies systematically measure, manage and integrate a preferred fiber and materials strategy into mainstream business operations. Confidential feedback to companies and a sector report will be released in September.
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index is the leading suite of self-assessment tools designed to empower brands, retailers and facilities of all sizes, at every stage in their sustainability journey, to measure their environmental and social and labor impacts and identify areas for improvement. Higg delivers a holistic overview of the sustainability performance of a product or company — a big-picture perspective that is essential for progress to be made.
There are many sustainability-enabling pressure points for apparel companies to measure and manage. One such opportunity is new technology that is emerging as a solution for reducing petroleum use in the manufacturing process through the integration of bio-based chemicals and materials. Bio-based fibers are not new within the textile arena, but early materials were manufactured through a fermentation process, which made environmental improvements cost-prohibitive.
Until now the chemical industry hasn’t had a viable technology option for cost-competitively producing 100 percent bio-based “drop-in” aromatic chemicals (i.e., benzene, toluene and xylenes (BTX) – the basic chemical building blocks used to make both nylons and polyesters for apparel — due to the lack of efficient and scalable processes that utilize renewable non-food biomass feedstocks.
Today the portfolio of biosynthetic fibers embraces nylon, polyester and spandex/elastane. PET polymer producers have begun to incorporate up to 30 percent renewable content for beverage bottles, as Bio-MEG from sugar-cane ethanol becomes more widely available, but the purified terepthalic acid (PTA) has always come from petroleum sources of para-xylene. This is currently changing as second-generation bio-based materials entering the market today offer a practical and commercially viable pathway to bio-derived materials. These materials are generally comparable with and, in many cases, identical to petroleum-based products and are, by definition, renewable.
“Organic remains central to TE’s cotton work, and we are now working with the industry to support adoption of recycled and bio-based synthetics such as nylon, polyester, and spandex into company fiber and material strategies. We’ve learned a lot from our work in organic and it’s exciting to take the learnings to a wider fiber and material portfolio,” says Liesl Truscott, director of fiber and materials strategy at Textile Exchange. “We started supporting the industry on bio-synthetics in 2012 with biov8tion, and I’m pleased to say that together we are now taking this to the next level.”
“The industry today talks of bio-synthetics as new and emerging polymers and fibers, but much of today’s advancements in this area are based on the post war (1950s) research and commercial polymers. A significant opportunity exists today to improve the sustainability performance in the apparel industry through the use of renewable, bio-based materials, rather than petroleum. Finite petroleum risks market volatility and is used as the backbone of our most widely used synthetic fibers today, polyester and nylon. Renewable and bio-derived chemistry offers up promising alternatives to produce in general chemically identical materials made from non-food biomass and further innovation opportunities in the future,” explains Sophie Mather, founder and director of biov8tion.
“A shift to bio-based apparel will play a significant role in reducing fossil fuel use and resulting emissions, while providing the opportunity for integrated producers to mitigate price volatility, and benefit from the market demand consumers place on ‘greener’ products,” says David Sudolsky, president and CEO at Anellotech. “Much of the focus in the renewable space has been devoted to PET bottles, where there has been and continues to be strong progress in improving renewable content. Anellotech is developing an innovative and cost effective process technology that will enable the step from 30 percent to 100 percent and this technology will apply not only to bottles but also to polyester textiles. The time is right to join forces in a collaborative way to accelerate the transition to bio-based textiles. We are excited to be working with TE, biov8tion, and others in this space.”
TE has set up a new Bio-Synthetics Working Group, comprised of TE members and experts with an interest in the future of bio-based materials as a solution to transitioning out of non-renewables and textiles based on petroleum towards more sustainable alternatives. The multi-stakeholder group, led by Mather, will be exploring challenges and barriers to growth, sustainability benefits, and importantly how to get bio-synthetics from R&D and proof of concept to market readiness and a commercially viable alternative to virgin materials. The WG meets in Hamburg, Germany at TE’s global sustainability conference, Oct. 4-6.
New platform allows industry to contribute and gain information on thousands of new materials in the Higg Index
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) has launched the Materials Sustainability Index (MSI) Contributor, a new addition to the Higg Index suite of tools that allows material suppliers and experts to submit apparel, footwear, and home textile material data into the Higg MSI. The MSI Contributor will allow SAC to expand data around materials sustainability to inform design, development and sourcing decisions for its more than 180 members – including designers and developers at some of the world’s most influential brands.
The Higg MSI provides a common lens for assessing materials impact on climate change, land use, water scarcity, resource depletion, eutrophication, and chemistry. “Sustainability measurement can only be achieved when the industry is speaking a common language,” saidJason Kibbey, CEO of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. “With the introduction of the MSI Contributor, we further the depth of that language, providing a baseline for thousands of materials that designers and the rest of the industry can use to make informed product decisions,” he said. “This is a key milestone in our roadmap to full industry transparency via the Higg Index in 2020.”
Once validated by the MSI Gatekeeper, the MSI Contributor submissions will be incorporated into the Higg MSI, a public tool relaunching in September that will allow users to see and compare scores for common materials in the apparel, footwear, and home textile industry. At launch, the Higg MSI will include 79 scored base materials (such as cotton, polyester, and EVA foam), and 225 additional production specifications (such as organic or bio-based fibers, weaving or knitting processes, or performance finishes) that can be used to get a more accurate score for a specific material. This results in more than 4000 scored materials, which SAC looks to rapidly expand with the MSI Contributor.
Through the MSI Contributor, the SAC expects that the entire industry will gain benefits in making more informed decisions around material use. Manufacturers will have a credible and comparable means to show how their responsible production processes reduce impact, allowing them to attract more brands committed to responsible sourcing.
“As a participating member of the SAC, INVISTA has been keen to ensure that the methodology used to assess material and product impacts is fair, unbiased and representative of actual environmental impacts associated with manufacture and consumer use of textile products,” said Francis Mason, Senior R&D Engineer of INVISTA. “This fundamental tool improvement will enhance the SAC reputation and Higg Tool adoption.”
According to Dr. Krishna Manda, Senior Advisor of Sustainability, Lenzing AG, “MSI Contributor will increase the functionality of the Higg Design & Development Module and supports brands in making meaningful decisions while designing products. This is a great platform to showcase the best sustainability practices of manufacturers which are duly verified by credible experts.”
The MSI Contributor marks another step in the evolution of Higg tools that promote data transparency, collaboration and systemic change across the industry. Soon, manufacturers and their brand and retailer customers will also be able to measure the overall environmental performance of their footwear, apparel and home textile products with the upcoming launch of the Design & Development Module (DDM) in the Fall.
The Sustainable Apparel Coalition welcomes industry review and contributions to the MSI Contributor at msicontributor.higg.org