The Higg Index, bad press and the potential of blockchain technology

The global apparel supply chain is one of the most complex of any industry. It’s been reported that a t-shirt can travel thousands of miles before a customer buys it, experts show in this KQED presentation. But these many international stops along the supply chain lead to a globally unsustainable and globally expanding industry. Everything from environmental inefficiencies to human labor abuses can disrupt this T-shirt’s supply chain.

It’s here that the Higg index join the game.

Created by sponsors Walmart and Patagonia Sustainable Clothing Coalition (SAC) in 2012, Higg (the company’s official name) became an independent software company in 2019. It collects and quantifies data regarding the textile manufacturing and supply chains of any apparel company willing to share , compiling information in one place (the Higg Index) with the aim of creating a global standard for effective and efficient textile production. A standard based on certifiable information that clearly addresses resource use, labor equity, and environmental impact is desperately needed in the unregulated and unpredictable apparel industry.

But over the past few months, the Higg index has come under scrutiny for his casual approach to the environmental impacts of synthetic fiber production and the unimpeded misrepresentation of their data by brands. It’s even been criticized for “trivializing the amount of change the fashion industry needs to go through to become sustainable.”

The Higg Index is an example of a well-meaning concept struggling to land successfully. Critics blame the index for not fully addressing the systemic change that nearly everyone agrees is needed at every stage of the apparel industry. And yet, for better or for worse, Higg remains the best catalyst for this transformation. Increased visibility into the global supply chain of unnecessarily wasteful fashion is the first step. The only question is, how to proceed?

The answer, like everything else in the sustainability business, is, “It’s complicated.”

The most obvious answer is to make the environmental and societal impacts of each stage of the supply chain visible (exactly what Higg set out to do) for all stakeholders, thus allowing the market to reward those who respect its standards and to punish those who do not. t. Customers would stop buying products from companies with problematic supply chains, substandard companies would change or die, and the fashion industry would become more sustainable.

Everything from environmental inefficiencies to human labor abuses can disrupt this T-shirt’s supply chain.

At least that’s the theory of change. Manifesting this utopian future requires digging into these supply chains and emerging with accurate data – a task that has proven easier said than done.

This is where the blockchain comes into the chat.

To ensure that the comfy t-shirt arrives on time and ready to go, a growing number of apparel companies are using blockchain technology. Best described as a decentralized ledger that provides product visibility at every stage of its journey, blockchain serves as a remote and secure log of any type of information. For example, such visibility can let a distributor know if there is a holdup or some other problem in the supply chain. The distributor can then adapt accordingly, reducing the fallout on customers and the negative economic impact.

But what if your supply chain is made up of thousands of small designers, cutters, seamstresses, dyers, finishers and other businesses? The complexity can multiply, although there are solutions.

Walmart, for example, uses blockchain to track its leafy green vegetable and pepper supply chains, which include thousands of small-scale farmers around the world. Tejas Bhatt, Senior Director of Walmart’s Global Food Safety Innovation Team, explained to me the benefit of the immutable nature of blockchain data: “Suppliers are much more careful about the accuracy data they put on the blockchain because it cannot be updated retroactively.” Bhatt said Walmart aims to reduce human error by “verifying that the digital footprint that [Walmart] sees on the blockchain actually matches the physical fingerprint of the product as it moves through the supply chain,” using automation.

Walmart has even created a solution for vendors who lack the financial and human capital to integrate blockchain. Bhatt and his team worked with each vendor on capacity specific to their operational capability. Small vendors, for example, may use Excel spreadsheets instead of a more expensive equivalent unnecessary for that vendor’s size. Rather than trying to fit a complicated process into a company that can’t support the technology, Walmart strives to create a scaled digitized dataset that could easily be uploaded to the chain without going over the top. economic.

And while this example is rooted in products specifically, Bhatt is optimistic that “although the Walmart model in particular” may not translate into fashion, blockchain in general can most certainly make the leap from one. industry to another.

But Higg is not a single product supply chain focused company. Instead, Higg strives to catalog all the environmental and societal inputs at every stage of the thousands of supply chains across the entire global fashion industry, then simplify that data into clear industry references. ‘industry.

Blockchain can help simplify this process.

And it’s a move the company seems to be considering. James Schaffer, Chief Strategy Officer at Higg, told me: “[Higg] has a number of technology innovation fronts underway, some of which relate to this new generation of digital traceability companies. every piece of data entering and leaving the system.”

The aforementioned criticisms directed at Higg are legitimate and deserve thoughtful and deliberate action and responses. No company should be able to use Higg data out of context without serious repercussions from the company originating the data, and the environmental impact of synthetic fibers (such as those used to create vegan leather) should be reviewed and clearly labeled as dependent on the petroleum industry. . Convicting Higg, however, for these fumbles instead of helping him move forward does not advance the ultimate goal of a sustainable global fashion industry.

Only Higg himself can determine how he intends to proceed. Currently, SAC and Higg have taken a break the global consumer transparency program to respond to criticism and rethink the process that so clearly needs updating. Schaffer commented during our conversation: “I think our [Higg’s employees and staff] hearts are definitely in the right place, but we’re working on something super hard. … And we just want to have those honest back and forths so we can really improve. And, whether you’re a Higg critic or a staunch supporter, we can all agree with Schaffer’s sentiments.

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