What makes for sustainable clothes? That is the focus of a Wall Street Journal article on an index developed by an industry coalition that aims to rank apparel based on a variety of factors (Which Outfit Is Greenest? A New Rating Tool, Jul 25).
The Higg Index (its name doesn’t refer to anyone but was chosen to clear copyright protections in 100-plus countries) looks at the entire life of a product from raw material to disposal. Brands can get points for asking consumers to wash items in cold, rather than hot, water, as Levi’s does, or for using recycled components like Nike’s polyester, made from used water bottles.
The graphic below shows how different fabrics stack up.
The index will initially be available to just industry insiders but the goal is to eventually have clothes in stores with tags that let consumers see the impact of their clothes.
Even in its early form, the Higg index is impacting how firms design and make clothes.
Nike gives designers competitive goals to design products with high index levels. A new Nike “Flyknit” running shoe that will be worn by U.S., Kenyan and other marathoners at the London Olympics was designed based on the index, says Hannah Jones, who oversees sustainability efforts at Nike, which she says has 130 employees working full-time on the issue. The shoe is knit from polyester, eliminating the waste of shoes sewn from cut textiles.
REI is designing its spring 2013 apparel collections using patterns that fit on fabric swaths more closely—and leave less on the cutting-room floor. It is looking to its suppliers to implement the index as well. “If we want our business to grow in the future, we better build a reliable supply chain,” says Kevin Myette, REI’s director of product sustainability.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out. If this becomes an industry standard, then it could have some strong implications for what firms choose to offer. Just as some car companies like to play up the fuel efficiency of their entire line, apparel makers could trumpet the sustainability of their clothing. Of course, that might mean no cotton T-shirts, just as a carmaker might opt not to offer pick ups with V8s. On the other hand, there are still plenty of big trucks in the market place so this may not serve to sway every customer’s buying decisions.