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NEW YORK – An article in the New York Times has heavily criticised the Higg Index for greenwashing. The article claims the index has enabled fast fashion to “recast plastic as good for the planet.” The Higg MSI has gained notoriety over some of its ‘scores’ for natural compared with synthetic fibres. For instance, according to the Higg MSI, silk has a total MSI impact of 1086 per kilo, while fast fashion favourite, polyester, has a total impact of only 36 per kilo. Other natural fibres also perform poorly according to Higg, despite regular complaints by natural fibres sectors, which have fallen on deaf ears.

States the NYT: “[The] Higg Index also strongly favors synthetic materials made from fossil fuels over natural ones like cotton, wool or leather. Now, those ratings are coming under fire from independent experts as well as representatives from natural-fiber industries who say the Higg Index is being used to portray the increasing use of synthetics use as environmentally desirable despite questions over synthetics’ environmental toll.”

The article adds: “The index rates polyester as one of the world’s most sustainable fabrics, for example, using data on European polyester production provided by a plastics-industry group, although most of the world’s polyester is made in Asia, usually using a dirtier energy grid and under less stringent environmental rules. The Higg rating for elastane, also known as Lycra or spandex, draws on a study by what was at the time the world’s largest elastane producer, Invista, a subsidiary of the conglomerate Koch Industries. (Invista sold its Lycra business in 2019.)”

“Many of the garment brands that sit on the board of the group that oversees the index profit from two fashion megatrends that directly benefited from advances in synthetics like these: fast fashion and athleisure.”

The article also claims Higg could be used to influence the EU’s ‘Substantiating Green Claims’ legislation and Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) tool. The Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) is a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) based method to quantify the relevant environmental impacts of products. The SAC is acting as the technical secretariat for PEF in the apparel and footwear category, however, it has always denied that this role is in any way meant to influence the PEF for apparel.

Criticism of Higg has largely remained within the confines of the fashion industry until recently and has rarely – if at all – reached the consumer-facing media. This article represents a concerning step for the SAC and Higg, especially coming on the back of the recent branding of Higg Sustainability labels as greenwashing by the Norwegian authorities.

Two words spring to mind: reputational damage. Fashion brands are more sensitive than ever to accusations of greenwashing, and the timing of articles like this in the b2c media could not be worse given that Higg labels are in the throes of being rolled out to becoming consumer-facing.

The SAC itself is so rattled by the article that it has been moved to issue a statement on its website.

This can be read in full here: SAC Statement in Response to New York Times Article – Sustainable Apparel Coalition

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