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WAKEFIELD – In our latest Ecotextile Talks radio show, Jeremy Lardeau, vice president of the Higg Index at the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), and Cash East, director of analytics at tech firm Higg discuss their work developing the Material Sustainability Index (MSI).

Speaking with former BBC producer Phil Berman, the pair explain how the data tool came to be, how it aligns an industry in search of answers and what we could expect from future updates.

The radio show is available on SpotifyAppleGoogle and Amazon Music, just search Ecotextile Talks.

“The MSI really provides a comprehensive scoring framework to truly look at the whole lifecycle of a material to help designers, developers and brands make better material decisions when it comes to environmental impacts,” starts Lardeau, explaining how previously, stakeholders had licence to work by their own criteria.

“It’s a helpful tool because it establishes the assessment criteria and provides the data so we can all agree on the rules of the road for evaluating materials and we can speak the same language.”

Previously, brands and retailers had their own criteria and codes of conduct that had the potential to frustrate suppliers, each tasked with meeting the individual expectations of different companies. 

For Cash East, his position sees him enthralled in the inner-workings of the Higg database as it harnesses data from throughout the industry’s supply chain to provide a picture representative of operations on a whole. 

“The Higg Index sources lifecycle data from two primary types of sources, our underlying database we source from leading global LCA (lifecycle assessment) databases. We also have a very robust and a quickly growing data submission process where we have manufacturers that are actually submitting data directly to us.

“We aggregate the data into five primary impact categories that we present to users for decision making,” he continues. 

These cover greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, water scarcity, eutrophication, fossil-fuel depletion or energy use and then chemical indicators that look at toxicity. 

With so many variables at play, it’s little surprise the SAC and Higg earlier this year decided to scrap a ‘single score’ system that aggregated the data across all these areas into just one figure. 

Upon reflection, Lardeau says: “The single score was creating more confusion and misleading interpretations than it was adding value. The underlying data continues to be the same, it continues to be the same high-quality LCA data that powers the MSI. 

“What users want is a very clear call out on which one is better and the frustrating answer is, it’s complicated and it depends. The MSI does its best to pull the most representative, most up-to-date data on the environmental footprint of many different types of materials so that we can make informed decisions.” 

When asked what the future holds for the MSI, Lardeau believes that technology could hold even greater promise if it was integrated in the product design phase of supply chains. 

“If you look at it today, a designer or developer needs to pro-actively go onto the website and click through to create their own materials and scenarios and understand the trade-offs and then compare that to his or her brand priorities,” the vice president says. 

“It’s an involved process and in five years from now I’d love for the MSI data to be integrated in the tools that the designers and developers use on a day-to-day basis.”

East says he too would see merit in embedding the environmental data within design solutions, as to offer designers an outlook both on the physical attributes of the materials they use and the subsequent impacts they’d have right from the start. 

“The common theme here is integration and standardisation of the use of this data,” East concludes. “It’s the recognition of goals around sustainable development and implementing more sustainable materials … to help this data really grow and continue to be utilised in a really embedded way.”

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