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LONDON – This week, it was announced that US-based fashion brand Tommy Hilfiger had become the latest brand to launch ‘Higg Index Sustainability Profiles’ for its product. These profiles, the concept of which was launched earlier this summer, are already being used by H&M and Amazon. According to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, Higg Co’s sister organisation, the profiles feature, “data-backed environmental claims and provide customers with unprecedented visibility into a product’s impact.”

The SAC’s Higg tools have been around for several years, and the goal was always for them to ultimately become consumer facing to give consumers a better idea of the environmental impact of the clothing they wear. I am sure we all support such a move, with the obvious caveat that the information provided to consumers has to be clear and accurate.

Is this the case here? In the example of the Tommy Hilfiger product profile provided by the SAC, it states: “The materials of this product show a reduction of at least -12,5% in their environmental impact compared to conventional materials. The product materials highlight reductions across the following categories.”

The categories then listed are global warming, fossil fuel use and water scarcity. Global warming is -13 per cent, while fossil fuel use is -8 per cent, but water scarcity is -87 per cent.

I did a double take on this figure. 87 per cent! Via LinkedIn – where this information was posted – I asked the SAC how this huge reduction in water impact was derived.

Answering my own question and that of somebody else who had also posted, they stated: “.. it is the decision to source organic cotton fiber instead of conventional cotton fiber that is driving the product’s material impact reductions. More details on the benchmarking is provided in our Transparency methodology document: https://profiles.higg.com/assets/downloads/OPTMPM2021051.0_Higg_Sustainability_Profiles_Material_Performance_Methodology_v1.pdf.”

Further addressing the issue, the SAC stated: “Water Scarcity is an LCA method that quantifies the impacts of water consumption that was developed under the UNEP/SETAC Life Cycle Initiative. You can read more at https://wulca-waterlca.org/aware/. The LCA data in the Higg MSI uses the Water Scarcity method and this is also the method required in the European Product Environmental Footprint project.”

I must be honest – I have never heard of the UNEP/SETAC Life Cycle Initiative. Have you?

Actually, the more important question is, have consumers who will be purchasing this top by Tommy Hifiger heard of any of this? Moreover, will these same consumers be able to make sense of the Higg Sustainability Profile Methodology alluded to above, a link to which is also provided on the consumer-facing product in this case?

It’s great that, in the interests of full transparency, links are being provided to the calculations for these figures for consumers to read if they are unsure about the calculations being claimed. But it’s not so great if your average person on the street is unlikely to be able to make sense of them and how they relate to the product being purchased.

Does sustainability really have to be this complex? Why all the smoke and mirrors?

Going back to this 87 per cent water reduction figure, another poster noted: “87% reduction in water consumption in the process considering all stages: Growing, treating, dyeing and finishing cotton, although desired by all, simply seems not feasible unless a major technological innovation has been achieved.”

Indeed – a major technological innovation. No such innovation has been achieved to my knowledge. Moreover, if a manufacturer in textile supply chains was making claims of a 87 per cent reduction in water reduction, we’d all be asking how.

The SAC has suggested the 87 per cent figure is linked to the use of organic cotton. But within the industry, it is now widely accepted that these outlandish figures pertaining to water reduction for organic cotton simply cannot be taken at face value.

In May, a report was published by UNFCCC Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action which saw researchers crunch data from 35 LCA cotton studies. They found there is a lack of transparency regarding the background life cycle inventory (LCI) data used to model LCAs while in many cases, “there is also a lack of transparency regarding the methodological assumptions applied while undertaking the LCA.”

“The existing LCA research conducted on cotton fiber production more often reports results as global averages and lacks regionality. For example, databases such as Higg MSI, provide scores for global averages of cotton production,” states the report.

The UNFCCC report adds: “LCA data cannot be used to determine the environmental performance of one cotton type over another and it is inappropriate to compare LCA results across the seven cotton types assessed in this report.”

This Higg Product Profile is built on LCA data which is riding a coach and horses through all of the issues alluded to above.

Some disclosure: I’m a big fan of organic cotton as well as Tommy Hifiger clothing. I’ve purchased plenty of their organic T-Shirts and knitted tops over the years. The latter, particularly, wear extremely well.

It’s for this reason that I find it particularly disappointing to see the company making these misleading, confusing claims on its clothing. The company is better than that, and surely the durability message alone around its clothing would be a more sensible – and authentic – line to push.

The other issue here, of course, is the growing movement by authorities to stamp out greenwashing in the retail space.

The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority will next year begin looking into retailers which make misleading claims around sustainability. The CMA’s finalised Green Claims Code is focused on six principles which are based on existing consumer law. These are that when making claims, retailers are:

  • Being truthful and accurate
  • Being clear and unambiguous
  • Not omitting or hiding important information
  • Only making fair and meaningful comparisons
  • Considering the full lifecycle of a product
  • Being substantiated.

I’d say, based on the above, one could make a pretty compelling argument that this Higg Product Profile falls down on all these criteria.

Consumers deserve far, far better.

The link to the product in question is here:

Essential Long Sleeve Logo T-Shirt | BLUE | Tommy Hilfiger

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