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In New Jersey, a school teacher is wearing the same dress for 100 days to promote awareness about sustainable fashion.

Colorful fabric hanging to dry after dye process

Julia Mooney chose to do this to highlight the modern world’s “culture of excess”, exemplified by the consumption of fast fashion.1 Our increasing reliance on cheap clothing is having a damaging impact on the environment and the communities in which the garments are made. Consumers are also increasing looking for alternatives, requiring manufacturers to find sustainable production methods. In 2017, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) released the third iteration of its Higg Index Facility Environmental Module (FEM) to help businesses assess their environmental and social sustainability.

In 2010, Greenpeace undertook surveys of three sites in Xintang, South-west China. The town produces 300 million denim items a year, roughly a third of all denim jeans in the world, and employs around 220,000 people. The cost of this success, however, is extreme. The Greenpeace survey demonstrated that at each site, levels of lead, copper and cadmium exceeded national ‘soil environmental quality standards’, and, whereas twenty years ago you could swim in the East River, pollution has now turned it blue and given it a sickening odor.2 A third of all Chinese rivers are currently classified as too polluted for direct human contact.3 In addition, pollution and relatively low wages mean local residents are no longer willing to work in the factories or live in the town. Instead, immigrants from poorer provinces have replaced the local population, leading to a breakdown in social cohesion, increased tension, and rioting.4

Fast fashion is now acknowledged by many as an unsustainable business model, both in terms of its environmental and social impact and the way it’s becoming perceived by consumers. In 2018, the online personalized shopping website Lyst reported a 47% increase in people searching for sustainable products.5 In November 2018, the UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee, responding to consumer demand and environmental pressure, began looking at ‘Sustainability in the Fashion Industry’ and pronounced it environmentally unsustainable.6

Against a background of increased awareness over the environmental impact of many of our consumer habits, such as single-use plastics and microbeads, companies in the fashion world are increasing finding themselves under fire to find sustainable business models. In 2015, US clothing entrepreneur Eileen Fisher denounced the fashion industry as the second largest polluter in the world.7 Her brand is just one of many that are now looking to improve sustainability and reduce their negative impacts.8 This trend isn’t restricted to high-end fashion, even high-street chains are now demanding sustainable employment requirements9 and less environmentally damaging production methods from their suppliers.10

For operators in the textile, clothing and footwear industries, the key drivers for change remain environmental impact, social impact, and consumer demand. They must, however, be capable of demonstrating their compliance with sustainable practices and this means independent oversight. In a 2014 Q&A, Barbara Crowther of the Fairtrade Foundation stated that 76% of consumers believed independent third-party certification is the best way to verify a product’s social or environmental claims.11

Higg Index

Launched in 2012 by SAC, a nonprofit group founded by fashion companies, non-governmental organizations and the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Higg Index is a self-assessment tool to help operators in the textile, apparel and footwear sectors evaluate their sustainability. In November 2017, SAC published the third version of its FEM module for the Higgs Index, aimed at improving facilities’ social and environmental performance.

This self-assessment tool covers various aspects of sustainability, including:

  • Environmental Management System
  • Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions
  • Air Emissions
  • Water Use
  • Wastewater
  • Waste Management
  • Chemicals Management

The latest version includes greater integration with ZDHC (Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals), OIA and SAC chemical management, and applicability testing for water use, wastewater, air emissions and chemical management sections.

While the Higg Index is a self-assessment tool, verification can be used to promote the environmental and social efforts of the company to other businesses and consumers. This must be performed by an independent third-party organization operating in accordance with SAC Higg verification protocols. It is conducted on an announced or semi-announced basis and can be performed either onsite or offsite, although an offsite verification cannot be publicly shared. In addition, if the facility uses chemicals as part of its production, it will only be able to access Level 2 and 3 of the Higg Index following onsite assessment by an approved chemical specialist verifier.

Increased customer trust in a product, following verification by an independent certifier, is just one of the benefits. Others include:

  • Better awareness of sustainability
  • Promotes continuous improvements
  • Helps streamline processes
  • Encourages new business – verified score can be presented to multiple customers
  • Reduces replication and need for additional site inspections
  • Saves time and money

Greater awareness of the social and environmental impact of the fashion industry by authorities and consumers is forcing operators to rethink the way they conduct their businesses. In China, which is estimated to have over 15,000 textile mills and produces over 50% of the world’s textiles, measures to reduce their environmental impact in relation to water, electricity and coal usage have helped to save the companies involved millions of dollars.12

The Higg Index provides operators with a valuable tool for assessing compliance and identifying areas for improvement. By verifying their Higg Index score, the business can promote their sustainability and attract new customers.

SGS Solution

SGS offers a range of services to help companies develop and manage comprehensive programs related to better environmental sustainability. We can offer verification services according to SAC Higg verification protocols, enabling economic operators to promote their environmental credentials. In addition to assessment, we also offer training, monitoring, coaching and certification solutions tailored to the need of each facility.

Learn more about SGS’s Environmental Audit Services >

For more information, please contact:

Xavier Vital
Global Environmental Services Manager
Supply chain Assessments & Solutions
m: +1 973 513 59 38

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1
New Jersey teacher wears same dress for 100 days to promote sustainable fashion
2
The denim capital of the world: so polluted you can’t give the houses away
3
These Chinese textile mills are going green—and saving millions
4
Tension, security high in China's 'jeans capital' after riots
5
Sustainable Fashion Searches Surged In 2018
6
UK fashion industry not environmentally sustainable in current form
7
Fast Fashion Is the Second Dirtiest Industry in the World, Next to Big Oil
8
Brands like Eileen Fisher, Patagonia try to curb carbon footprint
9
Almost one million garment workers covered by H&M's 'fair living wage' strategy
10
Is Sustainable Fashion the New Normal?
11
Consumer behaviour and sustainability - what you need to know
12
These Chinese textile mills are going green—and saving millions