The Fashion Industry's Powerful—and Controversial—Sustainability Rating System, Exposed

Some of the biggest mass-producers in fashion support the Higg Index and its parent organization, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition—and sit on its board. Now the index's data is banned in Norway, and faces increased scrutiny across media, government, and the larger fashion industry.

Plant Leather, also known as Mirum, is in use at All Birds and purports to be one of the only imitation leather products is entirely petrochemical-free.

Until this week, only true fashion insiders—think marketing SVPs and editors at trade magazines—discussed, let alone criticized, an industry sustainability rating system known as the Higg Index. On Sunday, the New York Times pulled back the curtain on the controversies surrounding the way some fashion-world giants answer to customers, and even national governments, for their impact on the environment.

In recent years, fashion brands have deftly recast such petroleum-based synthetic textiles as imitation leathers, along with polyester and traditional nylon, as vegan leather and vegan silk in an attempt to charm the increasingly sustainability-minded public. Admittedly, the invented category of “vegan leather” alone is an umbrella term that lumps together a wide variety of textiles spanning recent innovations like mushroom and pineapple leather (both of which, it should be noted, can require plastic coatings) and petroleum-based plastic leather, a favorite of fast fashion juggernauts. Only one leather alternative Mirum, also known as Plant Leather, purport to be entirely petrochemical-free.

In her article, Hiroko Tabuchi explores how the leading sustainability rating system, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index, apparently rates synthetic, petrochemical-based textiles known for their detrimental impact on the environment more favorably than natural textiles. The Coalition, which oversees the index and counts retail and fashion giants like Walmart, Amazon, Nike, and Patagonia as members and has H&M on its board, said that ratings for textiles come from “independent, scientifically reviewed data.”

Polyester production at a facility in Thailand. Photo credit: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

As Tabuchi notes, however, the origins of that data can be dubious. For example, the index’s rating of elastane or Lycra is based on historical data from Invista, the world’s then-largest producer of elastane. Tabuchi also alleges that the index also rates polyester as “one of the world’s most sustainable fabrics” despite it belonging to a category of synthetic textiles that leaches microplastics into the ocean, as well as our lungs and blood.

What polyester and other petroleum-based textiles do have going for them is that they can be remarkably cheap to produce, allowing the fashion brands that favor them to keep costs low and profits high. So perhaps it’s not totally surprising that Tabuchi’s reporting followed a rebuke of the Higg Index by Norway’s Consumer Authority, which monitors greenwashing claims in consumer marketing. According to the Intercept, the Higg Index reportedly now faces a ban in the Nordic country. Update: On June 16, Business of Fashion reported that the Norwegian Consumer Authority has required H&M and sportswear brand Norrøna to “change or remove its marketing referencing data from the Higg Index” by September 1 and August 14, respectively, citing the information as misleading to consumers. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition was also warned by the watchdog group against further use of Higg data in consumer-facing marketing in Norway.

“Their approach has been shrouded in a lot of secrecy. It’s not a transparent system,” says former Coalition board member Linda Greer, who told the New York Times that she resigned from her position this year due to the organization’s “lack of progress” on environmental and climate policies. “This industry, maybe more so than any other sector, is very big on talk, very big on the next exciting thing—almost as if it’s a fashion show, the season’s latest.”

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