Sustainability and its truth: when the knots come to the boil

After much building of marketing castles, the alleged truth about how the green impact of materials and products is assessed and promoted generates doubts, questions, and journalistic enquiries. A small tsunami of opportune scepticism that, for example, is confronting a “highly quoted” tool like the Higg Index with its responsibilities, accused at best of self-referentiality and which, not only for this, has been suspended by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition: that is, by those who created it


Absolute truth does not exist. There is relative truth. For sustainability, at least to date, we are faced with the same archetype. There is, in fact, no specification, no protocol on the basis of which it is possible to indicate, and thus certify, in a particular and irrefutable manner whether and how a product is sustainable. Translated: only good sustainability practices exist. In other words: the best possible ones and those that, in this sense, undergo constant updating.

Moral of it all? Under the blows of independent studies and the media, all those who had hitherto claimed to have written the Green Law are falling. Often, if not always, “pro domo loro”. The suspicion, in fact, is that these tables were written ad hoc to exploit the growing consumer demand for sustainable products. For example, as in the case of the (ongoing) controversy, we are about to tell you.

Sustainability and its impossible truth

Whereas a few years ago, it was a few courageous scholars who raised doubts about the various indices that promised absolute sustainability, in recent weeks, we have witnessed a kind of mass rebellion pointing the finger at the Higg Index. The first version of this Index was released in 2011, but only as the years went by did, we realise its significant shortcomings.

Among the various articles in circulation, a very comprehensive one is entitled ‘Was It Polyester All Along? ‘, written on 1 October 2020 by independent analyst Veronica Bates Kassatly. Besides tracing the historical stages of the Index, its doubts and non-answers are pointed out. For example: how come the impact of silk per kilo is 681 when that of polyester is only 44? Again: why does the Higg Index take European polyester as the benchmark when 94% of global supply comes from Asia?

Requests and further questions

In a week’s time, there came, loud and clear, the demand from the tanning world to suspend the Higg Index for much the same reason as silk. That is: natural materials such as wool, leather, silk, and cotton would be less sustainable than synthetics such as polyester. Which, as it is, sounds rather counterintuitive. Under indictment, therefore, is the SAC – Sustainable Apparel Coalition that created and manages the Higg Index and whose members include companies of the calibre of Amazon, H&M, Inditex, Kering, Mango, and Nike, Puma, and many others.

Illusion of sustainability

“The harm that Higg does by presenting an illusion of sustainability far outweighs any possible benefits it claims,” summarises CMF – Changing Markets Foundation in its study Licence to Greenwash (March 2022), in which it states that 10 of the most important regulations and certification schemes used to establish the level of sustainability of a product or practice, in truth, allow “sophisticated greenwashing on a massive scale“. CMF concludes that this has increased, rather than decreased, the fashion industry’s environmental impact. Because of the use of polyester fibres, dependence on fossil fuels and overproduction have doubled. It is no coincidence that the UK’s CMA – Competition and Markets Authority has gone so far as to state that up to 40% of green claims online may be misleading.

The latest controversy

The spark ignited the ‘anti-Higg Index’ movement on 12 June 2022 with a New York Times article entitled How Fashion Giants Recast Plastic as Good for the Planet. This investigation questions the Index, pointing out its self-referentiality. For example, one can read that a vegan alternative to leather is a marketing stunt.

A few days later, the Norwegian consumer authority (NCA) banned the Index. And again: the Natural Fibers Alliance calls for its suspension. And then, on 27 June, SAC suspended the Index because it became necessary to ‘better understand how to substantiate product-level claims with reliable and credible data’, says CEO Amina Razvi. If it is not a (belated) admission of guilt, it is a close call.

So many words, just words

Vogue Business, in turn, shifts its focus to recycled plastic swimwear and trainers, which, it writes, ‘are not as green as you think‘. Basically: brands spend money to launch a recycled plastic product. Still, they often don’t make the same effort to match it with an actual reduction in total consumption of the polluting material. “When a bathtub overflows, you don’t run for the rag. First, you turn off the tap,’ Jackie Savitz, head of the non-profit organisation Oceana, explained to Vogue. In short: we are dealing with sustainability in a façade and for profit.

Better to consume less

For now, therefore, the only green way that everyone agrees on is to consume less. We need durable products made of high-quality materials such as leather from food industry waste, free of plastic, and excellent artistry. And that can be repaired to last as long as possible. In this sense, we could call it (true) timeless sustainability.

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