Rab (the U.K. outdoor brand owned by Equip Outdoor Technologies) has announced it is introducing an agnostic rating system on its product in the hope that it will persuade others to use something similar so that the public image of the industry is more consistent with what the public wants (please see the original press release at the end of this article).

The question is whether Material Facts will just add to the roughly 1,000 different CSR standards already in use across Europe? To hear tales from colleagues in this area who are juggling 132 different audit systems that their company uses highlights the flaw in the current system. Over the summer, there has been much talk around the Higg Index as a solution; although there is much going for it – it takes a budget to facilitate, and CSR is still regarded by the industry as a good add-on to have.

This contrasts with the consumers who genuinely believe that brands will always make the choice for good when the option presents itself. The incoming Generation Z is confused that brands will prioritize profit over the well-being of the planet – when practice such as that gets exposed, then reputations are shredded (within hours as social media can provide an ongoing commentary in real-time). Where Material Facts will have the most take up in simplifying the messages that retailers can use so as to discourage the greenwashing that some shops have naively drifted towards. It is also timed to coincide with incoming legislation of the Green Claims part of the EU Green Deal.

The Higg Index uses five tools, but one of the tools has been a target for debate. The Material Sustainability Index (MSI; which has a simplified free-to-use option) tries to provide an extra channel of information for designers and product developers to enable them to make a more informed choice towards better practice – but it has flaws. The Higg Index is a set of metrics (against best practice); it is available on the Higg platform provider; however, the data scaling has been done by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition which uses whatever lifecycle analysis (LCA) reports it has access to. For something like polyester, there are over 30 LCAs that form the database, but silk uses just one. Comparing wool (a by-product of the meat industry) to alligator skin sees the former lose out – but this also highlights how the Higg Index score should just be an extra channel of information (as opposed to the definitive answer), as other factors like the Social side of CSR would take precedence in this fabric choice situation.

Whatever happens to the Higg Index MSI (which is undergoing a review as it has made a call out for newer LCAs to be moderated), there are four other tools (the Facility Environmental Module, the Facility Social and Labor Module, the Brand and Retail Module, and the Higg Product Module) which are acknowledged to lead best practice it does raise the question of audit confusion – when the customer finds it too hard to tell the difference between the various endorsement labels, so groups them all together as being the same. Fair Wear labor practice is seen as just as good as the Global Organic Textile Standard, Fairtrade appears as beneficial as Bluesign chemical management; ReGenerative Agriculture is comparable to the Better Cotton Initiative, and so on.

It is this problem that the Rab solution is addressing. Rather than creating another label, it is just providing a standardized metric format for ALL brands to participate in. Although this has been led by Debbie Read, Haydn Cornish-Jenkins and Kevin Karaca, they have been given the freedom by Equip design director Tim Fish as well as the wider company to create good. By not using the Equip font, they have let the system be adopted by any brand. The information segment has been simplified to get to the bones of what the consumer wants to know and talks in terms of real figures.

Rab itself has achieved great progress in both the big impacts, but also now the little stuff (like those storage sacks for down jackets that no one I know uses – in contrast to the ones used for sleeping bags). Is it genuine? I am willing to endorse it as I have been part of the ongoing conversations within the brand. Not everything that has been suggested I have agreed with, but then I am humble enough to admit that my lines of thought have been clarified by the conversations, and I respect that Rab is creating a more commercial system that the academic type that appeals to me.

This also focuses the more holistic question of take-up. It is not hard to predict that Rab will have success with this system (it will enhance its reputation directly with the customer). If it was to be donated to something like the Textile Exchange, as The North Face did with the Responsible Down Standard, it could well increase the chances of it becoming an industry norm. To restate this last statement – this will be a success as it is the information that the person who buys the garments wants, however, whether it is adopted as an industry norm is less certain – even though it contains all the elements that should be adopted.

One of the reasons why I speak in favor of the Higg Index is that it is the best option available. Whereas others want it stripped of its status – no one is objecting to four of the tools, the anger is focused on the prototype part of the fifth tool. At a time between COP 27 (climate crisis) and COP 15 (next month in Montreal to tackle the other half of the problem: biodiversity) – dropping the most widely adopted environmental and impact assessment tools is foolish in the hope that there is a better replacement and wildly optimistic: the incoming replacement is the EU Green Deal Product Environmental Footprint system (based on the even more criticized French Environmental Impact Assessment system) or one that uses the same LCA data (so reinventing the wheel using the same components). Higg has adoption of over 40 percent of the U.S. apparel industry and 25 percent of footwear brands. It is a much easier task to improve its data than waiting for something better to arrive.

Equip has played all the right cards with the format it has suggested; hopefully, the industry will welcome this when it is presented at ISPO Munich on Tuesday, Nov. 29 at 9 a.m. in Room B32 in conjunction with the EOG (as they think it is a positive step for all to take). 

Press release by Rab on Nov. 15, 2022:

British outdoor brand Rab (owned by Equip Outdoor Technologies Ltd.) are taking a major step towards increasing transparency around CSR communications with the launch of Material Facts. The programme aims to lead the way by taking into account consumers’ and retailers’ demands for accurate and honest sustainability claims about their products.

The programme has been launched to the brand’s retail partners and will be rolled out to consumers in Autumn/Winter 2023. With the launch of Material Facts, Rab calls retailers, other brands and industry stakeholders to action, and supports the European Outdoor Group’s Sustainability Data Exchange Project. 

Material Facts will be available for every apparel product, and focus on disclosing (by % weight) accurate recycled material content, fluorocarbon status and production location, with more criteria to be added in the future. As Rab moves towards Net Zero emissions by 2030, they are making incremental improvements to their products. Not simply considering face fabric, but getting into the details of sewing thread and trims. Material Facts will communicate these marginal gains in an open, honest, and easy-to-understand format.

The first full Material Facts data set will be compiled for Rab’s insulation range, with more apparel and sleeping bag categories to follow. Material Facts will be available on Rab’s website and can be reached through a QR code printed on every product’s hangtag, as well as provided to retailers for their own channels.

“At Rab, we are technical experts, driven by performance and accuracy. We believe in trust and honesty and are frustrated with the lack of clarity and assumptions around sustainability criteria. For us, introducing Material Facts is the only way forward. We may not have it right (yet) but we are transparent, show our methodology and are open to an industry-wide dialogue. To create real change in the industry, we call other brands and retailers to join our path and disclose the same.” Tim Fish, Equip Product Director