Shoppers Don’t Trust Fashion Brands’ Sustainability Claims. A New Transparency Tool Wants To Change That.
More and more fashion brands are flaunting their sustainable credentials, but marketing initiatives are falling flat as few customers believe them.
In January, the European Commission’s website screening report, which searches for breeches of EU consumer law online, included a check on environmental claims for the first time. It found that 42% of claims could be considered false, exaggerated or misleading. Additionally, a report by verification tool Compare Ethics last October found that just one in five consumers trust brands’ sustainability claims.
A new digital trustmark is hoping to tackle that and become the first unified approach to industry-wide transparency on products’ environmental impact.
In many ways, it already is. For those working in fashion production, Higg is a familiar name. The public-benefit technology company has been creating a suite of tools to measure, manage and share supply chain sustainability since 2011. It works with over 500 brands and 25,000 factories in over 120 countries to help them make more considered choices in their production and now it wants to help consumers make those informed decisions as well with its new public-facing trustmark, the Higg Index Sustainability Profile.
Since May, it has been used by Swedish fast fashion retailer H&M and Norwegian outdoor and sportswear brand Norrøna on select products on their ecommerce platforms in Europe and the US. Amazon, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Puma, Zalando and many more leading names have also agreed to adopt it in the near future.
Jason Kibbey, CEO of Higg, says: “We really need to use data to substantiate all of these green claims… consumers are tired of vague claims like ‘eco-friendly’, whatever that means.”
Kibbey compares the Higg mark to efficiency ratings such as Energy Star in the US and the EU energy label in Europe which rate electrical products and buildings. Like energy ratings, the Higg Index Sustainability Profile gives a product an overall score as a simple, easy-to-understand starting point for shoppers. If a consumer wishes to know more, they can see a breakdown of ratings in water usage, carbon emissions and use of fossil fuels with a simple click. A final third layer to the trustmark will offer detailed lifecycle assessment data, which is independently reviewed, for those who really want to dig in to the assessment.
Currently, it only looks at environmental impact of the materials used but within the next two years, Higg wants to include more information such as ethical manufacturing and wider brand information which considers the company’s record on sustainability more generally. It is also exclusively a digital tool to be displayed on ecommerce platforms so that it can be connected to data that is liable to change.
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Kibbey explains that Higg had always intended to be a consumer-facing tool but it became a business tool first to collate enough data. “The data that is shared with consumers has to be credible, has to be comparable, and you have to be able to understand more context behind it as well,” he says. Something that wasn’t previously available when Higg launched.
The Higg rating in its trustmark is set across an industry benchmark so consumers can not only find the least damaging products within a brand, but see how those compare to similar products from other brands. Creating this benchmark has taken Higg 10 years.
This lack of data until now has been a key sticking point for fashion’s transition to more sustainable methods. “Fashion is the most disaggregated industry in the world,” explains Kibbey. “There’s no other industry that is more spread out and more separated than fashion. Products and fabrics are bought and sold with no data behind it, no traceability, no awareness of the source.”
Higg has been able to bring some of the largest players in fashion together through its partnership with the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), which Higg was initially a part of before being rolled out as a separate company in 2019. SAC is a global alliance of more than 250 brands, retailers, suppliers, service providers, trade associations, NGOs and academic institutions working to reduce environmental impact and promote social justice across every step of the supply chain. Developing and using the Higg suite of tools has been central to its mission.
There are still some in the industry who are skeptical that trustmarks are useful altogether though. Small, independent brands in particular have found they are unable to afford accreditations despite many of them producing some of the most sustainable options. Kibbey wants to make Higg’s tools more accessible to them: “Our small-brand growth has tripled over the last year and so we’re trying to help more and more [of them]. I think this is something that we’re going to be investing in a lot more over the next couple of years because we think that software and common databases are actually a solution that can allow small brands, that typically have a founder that does 30 different things and needs simple information, to make better decisions.”
Higgs’ quest for reliable data that drives better decision making for brands and consumers is in a continuous state of improvement in other areas too. “We think we do [have one of the most trustworthy marks in the industry]. I would caveat that with: data, and the way that you share this information, is always going to have to evolve, and I think that we can never have the expectation that consumer-facing sustainability claims are going to be static or they’re going to be perfect.”
In addition to being able to add claims around ethical garment production, Kibbey says they are keeping an eye on legislation and due diligence practices for environmental claims that are on the horizon in many territories to make sure Higg is fit for purpose.
The Higg Index Sustainability Profile may not be the perfect solution yet, but it is, at least, being widely adopted by some of the biggest names in fashion who cannot wait another ten years to provide trustworthy information to their consumers.