SGS is functioning to help clothing manufacturers prove sustainability to consumers using the Higg Index FEM Module and the FSLM Module. SGS has a range of services to help companies develop and manage comprehensive programmes related to better environmental sustainability. It offers verification services according to SAC Higg verification protocols. Manufacturers and suppliers of clothing can no longer ignore the demand from consumers for sustainable production methods. To help stakeholders, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) released the third iteration of its Higg Index Facility Environmental Module (FEM) in 2017. The Higg Index FEM helps businesses assess their environmental sustainability. In 2018, the SAC also released the Facilities Social and Labour Module (FSLM) allowing businesses to assess their social performance.

The Higg Index was launched in 2012 by the non-profit group, SAC. It is a self-assessment tool designed to help operators in the textile, apparel and footwear sectors evaluate their sustainability. The third iteration of the Higg Index FEM module was published by SAC in November 2017. It covers various aspects of sustainability, including environmental management system, energy and greenhouse gas emissions, air emissions, water use, wastewater, waste management, and chemicals management. The latest version has greater integration with ZDHC (Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals), OIA and SAC chemical management. It also has applicability testing for water use, wastewater, air emissions and chemical management sections.

Beyond self-assessment, the Higg Index can also be used to promote the environmental and social efforts of the company, if the assessment is verified. Verification is carried out by independent third-party organisations that operate in accordance with SAC Higg verification protocols. It is conducted on an announced or semi-announced basis and can be performed either onsite or offsite, although an offsite verification cannot be publicly shared. If the facility uses chemicals as part of its production, it will only be able to access Level 2 and 3 of the Higg Index following onsite assessment by an approved chemical specialist verifier. Benefits of independent verification include improved consumer trust in the product, better awareness of sustainability, continuous improvements, streamlining processes, encouraging new business, reducing replication and need for additional site inspections, and saving of time and money.

Manufacturers and suppliers of clothing, textiles and footwear need find ways to prove sustainability to an ever more demanding customer-base. The Higg Index provides operators with a valuable tool for assessing compliance and identifying areas for improvement. Verification of their Higg Index score then allows the business to promote their sustainability to the public and attract new customers.

The dominance of fast fashion in the industry has proven to be unsustainable. When Greenpeace undertook three site surveys in Xintang, South-west China, a town that produces roughly a third of the world’s denim, it found levels of lead, copper and cadmium that exceeded national ‘soil environmental quality standards’. In addition, the river, which had been safe to swim in twenty years ago, was now blue with a sickening odour. A third of all Chinese rivers are currently classified as too polluted for direct human contact. Alongside environmental concerns, fast fashion is also affecting social cohesion. Low wages and pollution mean locals are no longer willing to work in the factories and so immigrants from poorer provinces have moved in to do the work. This has even caused riots between locals and in-comers.

The demand for sustainable clothing is being identified at both the individual level – online personalised shopping website Lyst reported a 47 per cent increase in people searching for sustainable products in 2018 – and at a governmental level. In November 2018, the UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee, responded to consumer demand and environmental pressure by looking at ‘Sustainability in the Fashion Industry’. It found it environmentally unsustainable.

To remain viable in a marketplace demanding sustainability, manufacturers must be able to demonstrate compliance with sustainable practices. This means independent oversight. Barbara Crowther of the Fairtrade Foundation stated in 2010 that 76 per cent of consumers believed independent third-party certification is the best way to verify a product’s social or environmental claims.