‘Vegan Leather’: How Fashion Giants Recast Plastic as Good for the Planet

The index ranks polyester as one of the world’s most sustainable fabrics, using, for example, European polyester production data provided by a plastics industry group, although most of the world’s polyester is manufactured in Asia, often using a dirtier power grid and less stringent environmental regulations. The Higg rating for elastane, also known as Lycra or spandex, is based on a study by the world’s largest producer of elastane, Invista, a subsidiary of Koch Industries.

The Higg Index itself was born about a decade ago amid increasing consumer emphasis on sustainability, environmental and animal welfare concerns. It coincides with advances in synthetic fabrics that are not only inexpensive, but also have new features that buyers covet, such as improved elasticity or improved sweat-wicking capabilities.

Many of the apparel brands that sit on the board of a group that oversees the index’s profits from two fashion megatrends have benefited directly from advances in the aggregate sector: fast fashion and sports. For example, fast fashion giant H&M showcases what they call a Higg particle-based sustainability record along with some of its products.

“The members of Higg, a lot of them are fast fashion brands, and they all use mostly polyester. Brett Mathews, chief editor of Apparel Insider, an industry-focused publication based in London, said they support them getting better polyester. But the data used is “very poor,” he said, and “the net result is the actual Higg score, which indicates the yarn is stronger than that, misleading consumers.”

The Sustainable Apparel Alliance says the company’s data is accurate and comprehensive, and has been collected according to industry standards. Any gap between European and Chinese polyester production would be small compared with other differences in textile production, such as knitting or weaving processes, it said.

H&M, which sits on the alliance panel, says the index is based on “standardized and verified third-party information” and that the tool is “continuously developed and improved”. Walmart says Higg is not the only tool it uses to improve apparel sustainability, and it continues to gauge the index’s capabilities. Invista did not respond to a request for comment.

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