Outdoor Industry Association Urges Brands to Commit to Sustainability

Salt Lake City—As more and more people head outside to hike, paddleboard, swim, ski and otherwise enjoy the outdoors, the focus of the retailers outfitting those enthusiasts has turned to sustainability. The Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) has developed and unveiled a tool that helps company understand where they are in the industry in regards to their sustainability endeavors: the Higg Index.

The need for the tool grew out of necessity, said Nikki Hodgson, corporate responsibility manager for OIA. Change, innovation and improvement on an industry level was not feasible without a way to tangibly measure where brands, facilities and products existed in relation to each other.

“Inherently, our values as an industry are around environmental stewardship and community. We manufacture products that help us get outdoors, but there is definitely an impact in manufacturing,” said Hodgson. “A number of individuals and companies started to get together to talk about this and start to answer those questions: what exactly is that environmental impact, and how can we improve it? We found that there were great initiatives around the individual company level, with innovation and environmental management and responsibility—but I don’t think we had a clear idea exactly how you measure that and how to communicate that to one another, to our business partners, and to our consumers.”

Since 2007, the OIA and partners developed the Higg Index, an online platform that is “ meets Facebook,” according to Betsy Blaisdell-Shepard, VP of Product at the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. “It’s an opportunity for you to measure your performance throughout any part of the life cycle of your products and connect with your peers to see how you’re doing with that, how you do against your peers or how your suppliers are performing for you,” she said.
The Higg platform is a suite of tools that covers every part of the supply chain, from product design and creation, brand strategy to factory performance, material impacts, retail impacts and product footprinting. The tools are set in three categories: brand level management, facility level measurement and product level management. The tool looks at both environmental and social practices to be as comprehensive as possible. The resultant score can be made public, which the OIA is strongly encouraging its adopting brands to do.

“It’s great for those of you that are trying to build a sustainability program and are hearing from your leadership: ‘what does this get me? How will I do better than this brand?'” said Blaisdell-Shepard. “It actually gives you that language to talk to your C-suite in the same way you would say: ‘we’re not competitive because these folks, our two competitors, their margin is here and our margin is nowhere near.’ It gives you the language that your c-suite needs to know how you stack up to your competitors.”

Still, while many look at the Higg Index as a simple scorecard, Blaisdell-Shepard is quick to dispel the idea.

“Everyone can create a scorecard. In order to get good adoption and get improvement within your companies, you have to have an ecosystem of resources to support that scorecard. So yes, Higg is a scoring framework, but we provide a lot of training and guidance,” she said.

The Higg Index has been live for two and a half years, and the OIA is offering the tool for free to its members until spring 2017. They have set goals for brand adoption and commitment, which are slowly getting closer to being met. While selling an online tool like the Higg Index to brands may not be the ‘sexiest’ pitch, Hodgson hopes brand will realize how important adoption is.

“When we’re talking about the sustainable business movement, the product indexing side of it is not the most exciting part of this movement—but it’s absolutely necessary. Until we understand where we are as an industry, at an individual level but also as an entire industry, we won’t’ be able to achieve this vision that we came up with as a group,” said Hodgson. “How can we innovate? How can we do this better? That’s really what a sustainable business is: it’s about asking those questions at an individual level, a company level, and an industry level. How can we be more responsible? And I don’t think we can answer those questions without the data that tools like the Higg index will give us.”