I’m back with a new interview! Earlier this month, a particularly interesting press release landed in my inbox from Sheep Inc. Co-Founders Edzard van der Wyck and Michael Wessely set about establishing how and why they have been working hard to make wool a sustainable textile, and how the fabric had been unfairly assessed by the Higg Index, Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s attempt at creating an environmentally-friendly textile database.
I’ve previously shared my own criticisms of the Higg Index alongside Amy Nguyen of Sustainable & Social in our shared post, 11 Fashion Lies, and received some backlash. So now, to see a brand so boldly criticise it? I had to learn more.
Ethical wool is a topic that’s always up for debate, as is any fabric that is derived from animals (sustainable leather, anyone?) In this case, I decided to fire up the Sustainability Advocates interview series once more to include this recent interview. Here’s what Edzard had to say about the Higg Index, as well as the best way to support a more sustainable fashion industry…
1. What was the spark that led you to start Sheep Inc.?
Whilst running my previous business (also in the fashion space), I saw the impact of fashion on the environment first-hand. That, combined with the birth of my son, really shook me into action. I left my last business to set up Sheep Inc. with the idea of creating a new model for how a fashion business could behave. One that would allow you to create beautiful products, whilst still addressing the climate emergency head on. And I had a real passion for knitwear, so wanted to create something special around that product category.
We built the whole brand off a central question of “how do you set up a fashion brand in today’s world?” – knowing the cliff edge we’re standing on. So it is not so much practices in the brand, but more that we’ve tried to take every part of the business and try to figure out how to do it in the most sustainable and ethical way we can.
An environmental core mission for Sheep Inc. is focusing on addressing the current, number one planetary concern: reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. And doing it quickly. This means we had to figure out a way of, not only, drastically reducing carbon emissions as a company, but figuring out how we could actually have a positive, regenerative impact – or we would simply become part of the problem. Our position is therefore that carbon-neutrality doesn’t push things far enough. If we want to get out of the crisis we’re in, we collectively need to have a regenerative impact – so become (naturally) carbon-negative. Which we achieve by working with regenerative farms to source our raw materials and manufacturing everything using solar power, so carbon neutrally.
Furthermore, we see the company as not only being a knitwear brand, but being representative of how you can operate in fashion to ensure you are part of the solution, not the problem. We wanted to create an example for other brands and future brands to show that there is a better way of doing things.
2. You recently criticised the validity of textile data that the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC)’s Higg Index provides. What were your biggest issues with the index?
The big issue is that the Higg Materials Sustainability Index (MSI) is pushing global apparel brands away from natural fibres and towards polyester which are based on petrochemicals. This despite synthetic fibres being a major contributor to micro-plastic pollution and contributing 35% to the total amount of micro-plastic ocean waste.
According to the index, silk has a total MSI impact rating of 1,086 per kg and wool has a total MSI impact rating of 81 per kg – while fast fashion favourite, polyester, has a total impact rating of 36 per kg. These ratings are coming under fire from independent experts as well as representatives from natural-fibre industries. As these ratings are based on flawed methodologies, incomplete data sets and select criteria.
The huge risk here is that this becomes a justification for the increased use of polyester and other synthetic fibres, rather than more sustainable natural fibres. A couple of reasons the Higg Index is so flawed are:
The Higg Index only calculates cradle-to-gate impact.
This means it measures the impact of a material from resource extraction (cradle) to the factory gate. It does not consider the full life cycle of each material, with post-purchase impact and end of life impact not taken into account. This is massively problematic. In the case of synthetic fibres, micro-plastics shed with every wash and enter our hydric resources. The toxic impact of materials treated with Fluorocarbons (PFCs) is also not considered – a long chain chemical used to make textile water repellent. PFCs slowly leach from the fabrics and gradually find their way into the water system. Over time, they bioaccumulate in the environment and enter the food chain, with the potential to cause health problems for both wildlife and people.
The material’s water consumption and CO2 emission during a garment’s lifespan, and waste pollution at the end of a garment’s lifetime are also not considered. This impact occurs downstream in fabric use and disposal. As a counter to this, wool is 100% biodegradable, incredibly long-lasting and does not require to be washed as often as synthetic materials thanks to its incredible antibacterial properties. Its lifetime, cradle to grave impact (from resource extraction to manufacturing, transportation, product use, and ultimately, disposal) is significantly lower than that of polyester.
We are not saying the Higg Index is lying. We are saying it is telling an incomplete, skewed version of real impact.
The Higg MSI data and methodology is not transparent.
The Higg MSI collates secondary data from life-cycle analyses performed in the industry. A lot of this research seems to be funded by trade associations or large fashion brands that may have a vested interest in synthetic fibres. And the large majority of the data is not publicly accessible nor peer-reviewed.
In addition, the SAC doesn’t disclose the methodology to calculate the scores or the concrete data used in each score. The SAC also repeatedly seems to have been reluctant to disclose information. By way of example, when the SAC recently increased the impact score of silk from 681 to 1,086 and decreased the score of polyester from 44 to 36, it offered no explanation about the rationale behind this.
In such a critical tool such as this, it seems imperative to aim for maximum transparency in the calculation methodology and data sourcing to help fashion industry participants and consumers to make informed decisions.
The Higg Index makes no distinction in how the materials were sourced.
The data on the environmental impact of Silk, the worst-rated material on the MSI, was drawn from a 2014 study of 100 silk farmers who rely on irrigation in a single state in India. The lead researcher from this study, Miguel F. Astudillo, told the New York Times, as reported in their article “How plastic giants recast plastic as good for the planet” that the study was not representative of the global industry and was unaware it was being used by the Index. The same unfair approach was also taken when measuring the impact of polyester. This was calculated using data on European polyester production, yet 93% of polyester is produced in Asia, where manufacturing, energy standards and environmental laws for the disposal of chemical waste are very different compared to EU standards and vary wildly between nations.
Where and how the raw materials are sourced has a huge amount of impact on the final figures.
The Higg Index ignores social impact.
In 2019, Veronica Bates [an independent analyst of sustainability claims in the global apparel sector] contacted the Sustainable Apparel Coalition enquiring on whether they intended to amend the Higg Index score for organic cotton, as a significant percentage is sourced from Xinjiang, and discovered to be tainted with prison, child and forced labour. The reply she received, as she reports in her article “Was It Polyester All Along”, was “The Higg MSI does not measure social impacts, nor does it claim to.” What this fundamentally means is that whether the material was sourced from the world’s most over-farmed land by the world’s most exploited farmers or by a farm that adopts regenerative farming practices and pays its people above minimum wage makes absolutely no difference in the way the index rates it’s environmental sustainability.
Environmental sustainability cannot exist without the safeguarding of human rights. The two are intrinsically tied.
This lack of nuance to the data is glaringly apparent in its treatment of wool.
If the Higg MSI data was used to influence the European “Substantiating Green Claims” legislation, no distinction would be made between the wool we source from regenerative farms and the wool the Sustainable Apparel Coalition examined for its Index. Regardless of the fact our farms are able to naturally sequester ~14kg CO2 per kg of wool produced. We also worked with an independent third-party, Carbon Footprint Ltd., to calculate and verify the negative carbon profile of all our knitwear via an unbiased Product Life Cycle Assessment (available here) from cradle-to-grave that aligns with the Carbon Neutral protocol.
In May 2019, the International Wool Textile Organization (IWTO) called for the inclusion of full product life-cycle impacts in the Higg Materials Sustainability Index. In June 2021, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition launched the Higg Product Module, which assesses the environmental impacts of a completed product. Once again this only calculates cradle-to-gate impacts, with a promise that upcoming releases will calculate the impact of a product’s full cradle-to-grave lifecycle, therefore also accounting for consumer impacts and end of life disposal. Until then, unfortunately, polyester and fossil fuels that are found in 65% of all garments will continue to be heroes, rather than villains.
Once again, the fashion industry has to change. But let’s use the right tools and the right data to move the industry forwards. Not backwards.
3. In light of this, for the average clothes wearer, what’s the most important thing to do to support a more sustainable fashion industry?
The change has to come from both sides. Brands need to clean up their act, but customers also need to interrogate where things come from more. So the most simple things customers can do is ask questions. And try to understand the impact an item of clothing has had in its creation before they make a purchase. So ask questions!
4. How is Sheep Inc. incorporating circularity across its garments’ lifecycles?
First of all, all our garments come with a lifetime care warranty, where we’ll help maintain the knit or fix any damage that has been done. Wool is also 100% recyclable and 100% biodegradable. So we can both recycle our knits into new garments (although quality does go down with recycled wool) or if it is beyond recycling/repair it can also be composted. It’s really about making sure there is no lasting impact from the garment after it has led its life. Which again, circling back to the Higg Index, is where so many synthetic materials cause such damage.
5. Sheep Inc. often challenges fashion industry norms by creating better – the latest being your 100% naturally white t-shirt. Can you share a bit more about the focus of this garment, and how it’s more than a plain old t-shirt?
First of all, compared to a cotton T-shirt, ours is knitted from Merino wool. Because Merino wool is amazing at temperature regulating, it wears very cool even when the temperature is up. So counter intuitively Merino wool is a great material to wear in summer. And it also doesn’t hold either moisture or odours — so you don’t get unsightly wet patches. The reason the Raw White version of our T-shirt in particular is so special, is that we’ve made it using no dyes. The wool we use from New Zealand has been carefully selected for being among the purest white wool available. So you can have a white T-shirt with zero dyes used (with dyes used in abundance to make cotton white T-shirts). So it’s another step in our drive to make all our knits as sustainable as possible.
6. Finally, do you have any upcoming projects or launches that we can look forward to?
The Raw White T-shirt has been in the works for a while, as it was a big challenge to source the right wool. That was both white enough and from regenerative farms. But we’re constantly innovating, so there’s a lot more coming from us soon…