Analyzing the sustainability of apparel factories

September 17, 2020

With the advance of “fast fashion” and online retail platforms, the negative impacts of mass-produced clothing are accumulating faster than ever. Over the past thirty years, non-governmental organizations have pushed clothing brands and retailers to adopt greater supply chain sustainability. However, the time and money spent developing new environmental codes, standards, and monitoring programs have yet to significantly improve the environmental performance of the apparel industry. 

A recent report by Energy & Resources Group graduate student Niklas Lollo and Environmental Science, Policy, and Management professor Dara O’Rourke analyzes the implementation and efficacy of apparel factory practices and performance assessments, as they relate to sustainability.

Complex supply webs, in which many factories produce for multiple retailers and operate under a variety of environmental codes and laws, are partly responsible. To address this issue, the company Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) formed the Higg Index, a set of data tools which evaluates environmental and labor standards, as well as product life cycles. Lollo and O’Rourke focused largely on the Facility Environment Module (FEM), an annual assessment of an apparel facility’s environmental management capabilities, procedures, and plans. 

From 2013 to 2016, the researchers tracked FEM data from nearly 12,000 apparel factories across 80 countries. They also surveyed the most sustainable facilities about their environmental programs, focusing on whether the FEM assessments led to changes in production practices. Along with the surveys, Lollo and O’Rourke conducted in-depth case studies of high-performing factories in Bangladesh and China, which included document reviews, interviews with factory managers, and facility tours.

After measuring the FEM’s effectiveness at promoting environmental standards and improving policies, the researchers found that the FEM has foundational but not transformative impacts on factories. In other words, while the FEM has indeed increased environmental evaluations and established baselines for apparel factories, it largely fails to incentivize companies to change policies surrounding sustainability. 

The authors’ recommendations for Higg Co include creating rewards for annual sustainability upgrades, as well as updating FEM to allow factories to collaborate as they innovate on sustainable practices. While the newest version of the FEM has expanded data collection to include reductions in energy use, water use, and emissions, Lollo and O'Rourke believe that the tool must incorporate cost-benefit analyses for retailers that assess how best to improve individual factory performance. The report calls on the SAC to remain committed to public transparency.

The report “Measurement without Clear Incentives to Improve: The Impacts of the Higg Facility Environmental Module (FEM) on Apparel Factory Practices and Performance” was published in August. Its results have been featured in articles by the Laudes Foundation and Innovation in Textiles.