Sustainability in the Apparel Industry: Improving How Companies Assess and Address Environmental Impacts Through a Revised Higg Index Facility Module
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CitationConnolly, Clare B. 2015. Sustainability in the Apparel Industry: Improving How Companies Assess and Address Environmental Impacts Through a Revised Higg Index Facility Module. Master's thesis, Harvard Extension School.
AbstractThis study was focused on analyzing the Facility Environmental Module (FEM) of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s (SAC) Higg Index. The research objectives were twofold: 1) to test whether the indicators featured in the FEM could accommodate the data requirements for calculating environmental impacts of apparel products, and 2) to identify if the FEM indicators could satisfy the data and information needs of other key stakeholder groups.
The long track record of irresponsible social and environmental practices in the apparel industry began gaining more attention in the press toward the end of the 20th century. Since then, many companies have been prompted to introduce sustainability practices in response to business-threatening criticisms. While these measures helped companies manage their supply chains better, for the most part the improvements remained at the scale of individual companies, limiting their effectiveness in implementing systemic change in the apparel industry.
The potential for improving sustainability across the industry rests in the ability for apparel companies to engage collaboratively toward the common goal. Helping to facilitate this objective is the Higg Index, the SAC’s self-assessment suite of tools. The Index is presently composed of three modules, which use a standardized scoring methodology to rate the performance of an apparel company’s brand, facilities, and products, respectively. One of the issues with the current state of the Index is the lack of connectivity between the product and facility modules. Because the processes conducted at the facility level have a direct impact on the embedded impacts of the product, it is important to consider these factors when assessing the lifecycle implications of a given product.
The second issue considered in this study is that facilities are often confronted with external pressures to report, comply, and seek certifications related to environmental performance. In practice, this requires completing data and information requests similar to those of the Higg Index. However, these tasks can be burdensome for facility managers who may need to gather data from multiple sources. If the FEM and other Higg Index modules were structured in such a way that they could reduce the time and effort required to complete other requests for information they would likely be more easily adopted.
A gap analysis approach was used to test the FEM’s ability to yield valuable data for product LCAs and to understand its potential synergies with other data and information requests. First, the metrics that could be expected from a completed FEM were compared against the requirements of the product LCA methodology using a restructured excel file. This file featured all FEM key performance indicators (KPI) and included dedicated columns for mapping the criteria for data needed by each LCA impact category methodology. The second test involved using a similar excel-based tool to assess the equivalencies between the FEM KPIs and those featured in two example external frameworks: the Fair Trade Product Standard and the Cradle to Cradle Standard.
Based on the results of these gap analyses, it became clear that there is significant potential to improve the assessment of facilities’ performance through the introduction of more quantitative KPIs. This would be required to calculate relative impacts for product LCAs and it would also help facilities gain a better understanding of their performance. It is therefore recommended that the SAC reassess the KPIs featured in the FEM and request more quantitative metrics. Additionally, continuing to evaluate the equivalencies of other sustainability frameworks may help the SAC to identify common KPIs that are asked by external organizations but not included in the FEM. These elements could then be incorporated into a future version of the FEM for a more comprehensive assessment of facility environmental performance.
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