It can be frustrating to the ethically minded consumer: if I can determine whether my food is organic and fair-trade, and can rely on some kind of government oversight for the former and independent labeling for the latter, why can't I find something similar for clothing? How am I supposed to know that I'm buying from a truly responsible company without doing miles of research every time I need a new blouse for work? Up until now, there have been some voluntary labels, plenty of apparel companies that are transparent about their supply chains, and several European systems (GOTS, etc.), but finding clothing that is sustainable (or at least less-bad) and made fairly has been a challenge.
The Higg Index may change all that. Recently launched by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, it seeks to make a certain set of data available across brands, and involves some pretty big companies, including Walmart, Patagonia, and many others (representing about one-third of the apparel industry) partnering with the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Environmental Defense Fund:
"The Higg Index 1.0 is primarily an indicator based tool for apparel that enables companies to evaluate material types, products, facilities and processes based on a range of environmental and product design choices. The Index asks practice-based, qualitative questions to gauge environmental sustainability performance and drive behavior for improvement. It is based largely on the Eco Index and Nike’s Apparel Environmental Design Tool, however it has been significantly enhanced through a pilot testing period."
While this is, for the time being, meant to be a learning tool within the industry, it will hopefully lead to some kind of labeling system for consumers. In version 1.0, footwear isn't included (though that's on the slate for the next version), and labor/human rights topics aren't either — though again that is planned for the next round.
I see this as a serious step forward to answer some of these important questions about the real sustainability of our clothing.
Photo: Jason Hargrove/Flickr